Veteran Middle East correspondent Jane Arraf says that despite recent terrorist explosions in Baghdad, most Iraqis do not blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for security problems. "After all the suicide bombings, you would think people would be incredibly angry," she says. "But when you ask people in the street, he doesn't get a lot of the blame." Still, it's not clear that he will prevail in the March 7 parliamentary elections, she says. "Everyone is waiting to see who gets the most votes after the elections. That's when we'll see the coalitions forming. Unlike the previous election when we pretty much knew who was going to head these coalitions, it's still all up in the air."
General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, noted recently that December was the first month free of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since the war began. How significant is that?
That is pretty significant, but it is also an indication that the focus of the attacks has shifted. The U.S. military will point to a dramatic decline in violence. It is indisputable that there has been a 90 percent reduction in attacks from the levels of a year ago. They will say it is proof the military "surges" have worked--the same counter-insurgency strategy they are using now in Afghanistan. That did contribute to the dramatic drop in violence, along with the Sons of Iraq--the Sunni volunteers who lined up against al-Qaeda and fought along with the U.S. military--and a ceasefire by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army. Another reason for the decline in the attacks is that U.S. forces are much less visible. Since last year, they have retreated from the cities--they would say carried out a "responsible withdrawal"--but there are no longer substantial numbers of U.S. troops in the cities. They are no longer easy targets. What everyone has seen when Iraq infrequently makes front page news is the horrendous, very effective terror attacks on government ministries.
There have been three waves of attacks in the last several months?
Yes. The first targeted and devastated the foreign ministry and wounded half of the staff of the ministry. That attack also hit the finance ministry. That was in August. In October, another wave of suicide bombings hit the justice ministry and other government buildings. And just about a month and a half ago, there was another series of attacks that hit places that they went back to hit, for instance the court house after they attacked the justice ministry, and the temporary finance ministry after they had attacked the main finance headquarters. Clearly there is considerable strategy going into these attacks. These are aimed apparently to prove that if the government cannot keep itself safe, how can they keep Iraqis safe?
What is the cause of these security breaches?
Baghdad is a huge city, and the traffic there is gridlocked. It is a city that has drastically changed since the United States went in in 2003. It is harder to get around. There are still concrete barriers everywhere. There are traffic jams everywhere. If there were any more security controls in the form of more checkpoints, there really would be a public backlash. There has to be that balance of security versus not bringing the city to a halt. So essentially there have been difficulties. The bigger, more disturbing, difficulty is in the Iraqi security apparatus itself. Some people say that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been obsessed with keeping control of intelligence operations, of setting up so many intelligence operations and intelligence teams that they don't actually talk to each other. That phenomenon actually erupted in Parliament. That was a fascinating exchange--members of Parliament standing up and saying that the interior minister doesn't talk to the defense minister, so what do you do? So there is actually a lot of politics going on behind this.
Talking about politics, the national elections for a new parliament that were originally supposed to take place in January will now take place on March 7. Who are the main contenders for power?
The most prominent of course is Prime Minister Maliki, who has done quite a lot of things right in the view of people in the streets. After all the suicide bombings, you would think people would be incredibly angry at him. But when you ask people in the street, he doesn't get a lot of the blame. What he hasn't done so well is enforcing his alliances with the political players he needs. He was basically the compromise candidate, and that's how he came to power. Now the Kurds say that he came to power because they decided to back him. That's in part true. Right now, the Kurds are not showing their cards. They're waiting to see, as everyone is waiting to see, who gets the most votes after the elections. That's when we'll see the coalitions forming. Unlike the previous election, when we pretty much knew who was going to head these coalitions, it's still all up in the air. There are even some players from 2003. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has been backed by the United States, is back. There are various Shiite candidates who have split from the coalition that Maliki had been part of, so there is a division in the two main Shiite parties, each with competing candidates. But again, that might change after the election results are in. As you know, politics anywhere, especially in the Middle East, are full of surprises so we could see alliances that we hadn't predicted.
The United States' main focus right now is to leave by the timeline that Obama has dictated and leave behind an Iraq that won't fall apart behind them.
Is this a different kind of election? Will people be voting for individuals or for parties?
They will be voting for both. For the first time in national elections, Iraqis are able to choose and vote for the candidate of their choice, not just for the party of their choice. This was one of the big debates in Parliament and one of the reasons for the delay in passing the election law. There are a lot of really unpopular members of Parliament. There's a lot of dissatisfaction in the country with Parliament, and a feeling that a lot of these members of Parliament probably won't win this time, so they were pushing for a closed slate where they were running on the coattails of the more popular parties. But in the end, they passed an election law that allows people to actually vote for the candidates themselves as well as the parties, which is seen as somewhat more democratic.
From the American point of view, is there a party the United States should be backing?
This is an interesting question. We've seen over the past six years a dramatic scaling back of expectations as to what we can expect from Iraq. This is not the nice, tidy democracy that some in the United States thought would be created when the United States went into Iraq. This is messy and is really full of unexpected challenges. One of the indications of that is the reconciliation process, where the United States military and the State Department are in the forefront of reconciling with Sunni and Shiite groups that have been clearly involved in attacks on Americans. That is something they said they would never do, but they've learned that they have to do it, and as distasteful as it may seem they are going to have to back whatever parties will lead to a more stable Iraq. That doesn't necessarily mean that it will be something that Americans will like or that the U.S. government will like. The United States' main focus right now is to leave by the timeline that Obama has dictated and leave behind an Iraq that won't fall apart behind them. That means all combat troops out by the end of this August and all troops out by the end of 2011.
Is that schedule locked in?
There may be some tweaks. Because Iraq won't have any airplanes at the end of 2011, it will not be able to protect its airspace and it will have to rely on some form of U.S. assistance. There is the expectation that the Iraqi government will come to the United States and negotiate some kind of agreement where there are a limited number of U.S. †forces still in Iraq after 2011.
What will be the impact of the recent decision to throw out the case against the Blackwater guards accused of killing some fourteen Iraqi civilians without cause?
Blackwater has become a symbol for what a lot of Iraqis see as U.S. disregard for Iraqi lives and for the worst of the occupation years. I think the ruling--similar to other incidents that have been a rallying call for the insurgency, such as the killing of civilians in Haditha and the rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl and her family--confirms that sentiment. It also doesn't do a lot of good for U.S. efforts to persuade Iraqis that they need to instill rule of law in their country if this is what rule of law means.
I don't think Iraqi officials hold out a lot of hope of pursuing the case in U.S. courts--they have said they will try to pursue it in Iraqi courts and indicated they might try to go after employees and assets of Xe--the company formerly known as Blackwater. One thing to watch will be whether an increasingly assertive Iraqi government will follow through with pressure on the U.S. embassy to cancel contracts with the reincarnated Blackwater.
Talk about some of the major political problems in the country; in particular, the ones dealing with Mosul and Kirkuk.
Kirkuk is perhaps the most intractable problem they are facing. The problem of Kirkuk goes to the heart of who gets power, who gets revenue, and what kind of country is Iraq going to be. The Turkmen minority will tell you they originally were not a minority in Kirkuk; they were the majority, and they deserve to have a substantial share of the power. The Kurds will tell you they were the majority, and they deserve to control Kirkuk. The Iraqi government of course is intent on keeping some form of control. Kirkuk is at the heart of the northern oil fields. There's huge oil wealth around there. All of that combined with everything else that Iraq and the Iraqis are facing in trying to repair their country has proved so far to be impossible to solve. There were to have been referendums, and there were to have been agreements. But those deadlines have passed, and one of the problems is that the constitution that was put through under U.S. pressure delayed the question of what to do about Kirkuk. You can only delay this so far. That's one of the things the Iraqi parliament will have to deal with this year. They'll have to take a hard look at Kirkuk and decide if they will go with the UN proposal that will basically make it a shared administrative city. Will there be some other formulas? It is one of the biggest problems.
The problems of Mosul are complicated by the fact that Mosul is one area where there is still an active insurgency. It's one of the places where al-Qaeda in Iraq was moved out of Baghdad during the surge and moved further north, and they still have a foothold in Mosul. And it's one of the places where the United States is still playing an active role in combating that insurgency. There are Kurdish forces; there are Iraqi forces there. They're all under the same umbrella, but there are definitely tensions, and that's one of the things the United States is trying to do--to bring the Kurdish military and Iraqi military closer together, to have them work together to avoid those flashpoints that we've seen that could actually lead to violence that could spiral out of control.
Iran doesn't orchestrate Iraqi policy as far as we can see, but it does have certainly a substantial influence because of [the] longstanding ties and because of the money it throws at it.
A while ago there was a highly publicized incident where Iranian troops were said to have occupied an Iraqi oilfield near the Iranian border. Then they subsequently withdrew after a few days. What was that all about?
That was an interesting situation. It's called Well No. 4. It's a specific well and a specific field that runs underground across the border, so some of it is Iran and some of it is in Iraq. Iran has claimed that Iraq is taking more than its fair share. Now about a year ago, some Iranian forces went in and planted their flag. The Iraqis went back and took their flag down, and the skirmish lasted a few days, and then it calmed down. That area has been closely monitored by the Iraqis since. I've been at one of the giant command stations in the south in Maysan province where the oilfields are, where they actually have border police reporting back to the provincial capital every day as to whether there is Iranian activity around that specific well and other wells. Essentially it did die down--the Iranians withdrew. But it points to continuing tension between Iran and Iraq. And to tension between the Iraqi Shiite-led government that has been backed by Iran but is eager now to prove that it is not a tool of Iran. Iran has been distracted by events within its own borders. But there does seem to be a message that if it wants to make trouble in Iraq, it can still do so.
Does Iran direct policy in Iraq or is it just an interested bystander?
It's somewhere in between. The Iranians are very influential bystanders. There are Iraqi politicians who spent years in exile in Iran, so certainly there would naturally be ties. Iran is one of Iraq's biggest trading partners, and that is something we should not forget. Iran doesn't orchestrate Iraqi policy as far as we can see, but it does have certainly a substantial influence because of those longstanding ties and because of the money it throws at it. In these elections, for example, there is no law barring foreign donations for political parties or political candidates. Iran particularly is thought to be spending quite a lot of money in trying to influence the elections.