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Anxious Iraqis Look at Uncertain Future

Interviewee: Jane Arraf, Baghdad Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 26, 2010

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With the pullout of U.S. combat units completed, many Iraqis, even those who deplored the presence of foreign troops, are "fearful about what happens" if the U.S. withdraws completely next year as planned, says Jane Arraf, a long-time Baghdad correspondent who served as an Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at CFR. Beyond concerns about whether Iraq will be able to defend itself when all U.S. troops have gone, there's also anxiety about the unsettled political situation. Arraf says Iraqis seem to be unable to forge a compromise between Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, whose bloc had the most seats in last March's elections, and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We keep thinking that perhaps there's a lot going on beneath the surface, but apparently there isn't. It is what it is. It's stalled. There's talk about what to do, but nothing's been established yet."

President Obama is planning to give a speech on Iraq next week marking the pullout of U.S. combat troops from the country. Does their departure make a big difference in Iraq?

It really doesn't. A lot of that is because it isn't a development that has had much of an impact on the ground. Some have called it a "rebranding" of the conflict, and there is some truth to that. What we've got left are fifty thousand other troops, a substantial number, and a lot of those are actually combat troops. Any brigade here is ready, equipped, and trained for combat. It's just that the mission is changing. So with that many troops on the ground, the latest withdrawals really don't have that much of an impact, particularly since we haven't been seeing the United States in unilateral combat missions since June of last year. As part of the security agreement signed by the Bush administration, the U.S. forces are taking a backseat to the Iraqi forces. The bottom line is that nothing really will change on September 1. What we're really looking at is what happens as next year's deadline of December 31, 2011, approaches for all the troops to leave.

Are Americans regarded as friends or enemies? Are people happy to see the Americans out of Iraq? Or do they want the Americans to have more influence? Clearly there's a chaotic security and political situation in Iraq, right?

It's a love-hate relationship that, right now, is turning into a feeling almost of abandonment. Even Iraqis who have absolutely despised the thought of a presence of a large number of foreign troops here are quite nervous, quite fearful about what happens if they pull out next year. It's something that I hear constantly in the streets, when I stop to talk to people, when I go to the sites of these attacks. When I talk to political leaders, there is quite a lot of apprehension about what happens when there is no big U.S. presence here and Iraq can't really defend its borders or its airspace.

Will the United States be providing long-term air defense? Or is that supposed to end next year too?

When I talk to political leaders there is quite a lot of apprehension about what happens when there is no big U.S. presence here and Iraq can't really defend its borders or its airspace.

Everything ends next year, so it really all has to be negotiated. The commanding general in charge of training Iraqi forces told me they are in the midst of negotiating an agreement to allow NATO to continue training. Such an agreement of course to replace the Iraq-U.S. security agreement will actually have to be negotiated by whatever new government is formed. The assumption is that it will be a pro-Western, pro-U.S. government, but that's not a certainty. What if, for instance, the Sadrists have a large role to play in the new government? What if it's a much more Iranian-friendly government than some people are suggesting? They could turn to Iran for a security agreement.

When terrorist attacks occur and hundreds of people get killed or wounded, is this regarded by Iraqis as comparable to another day of car crashes in the United States?

We might think so, because on the surface, life continues on--people go to work, they open up their shops just hours after an explosion on their street, people send their kids to school. But it has had a significant effect in terms of human investment. Those Iraqis--many of them middle class, a lot of the engineers, the doctors, the professionals needed to rebuild Iraq--will look at the headlines and say, "Why should I want to come back to Iraq? What is there to come back for?" Also, because these attacks have been very focused on the Iraqi police forces, there has been an effect on the ground. With every attack on the police, they retreat further into their police stations. The hope was to have a police force that could eventually replace, first U.S. soldiers, and then Iraqi soldiers that are still here in the streets. When the police get out, they do investigations and they keep the streets safe. When they retreat back, they're more worried about protecting themselves against these almost constant attacks, either individual or collective, and that really does eventually have a significant effect on security in urban areas.

How do you feel when you walk on the street? Do you worry a lot?

It's like being a teenager--I'm not allowed to go out on the street on my own. When I'm out on the streets, there's still obviously some danger, but I do have my Iraqi staff, one or two of them with me at all times. The prevailing feeling is uncertainty. When I go grocery shopping, the shops are full of people. They're not letting these events deter them from going out. There are new clothing stores, there are new stores selling electronics, but this is all small investment--you don't see the big things happening. And you don't see a lot of faith in a near-term optimistic future. People pretty much think it'll get better, but it'll take a long time. A long time means a decade, perhaps. People aren't really thinking it's going to get better in the new year or two years from now.

Why can't the Iraqis get electricity working? I gather this is a major complaint.

Most of us do not completely understand why it is there is still no electricity. Officials will tell you that it's because there is a greatly increased demand--- there are more air conditioners and other appliances. Those attacks we saw during the height of the insurgency, on refineries, on oil installations have not been repaired. Everything is on hold, waiting for those billions of dollars in investment to come in. That will happen, but it will take a long time.

And there is all this corruption. Corruption here is at the basis of almost everything. If you talk to Iraqis, they're more worried about corruption than they are about terrorism. Certainly that's a lot of the reason why a lot of money that is to be spent on things like electricity has seemed to have gone astray. And it's part of the reason why the infrastructure, seven years on, is still in such bad shape. Here in Baghdad, people generally get one hour of electricity and then it goes off for four hours or five hours, comes back for another hour. In some places, they don't even get that. And it's not just the electricity, there are water shortages. We're sweltering in 120 degrees and then the water gets cut off. There is a building resentment here and it's more to do with basic services than it is about security.

The corruption is among officials? Money is allocated to building up an electrical infrastructure, for instance, and somehow the money gets diverted?

It's as blatant as government officials, deputy ministers, directors of departments stuffing cash into their suitcases and leaving the country and as prevalent as bribes paid on contracts. On a day-to-day level, it's very hard for anybody here to get anything done unless they pay a bribe, and that includes getting documents that you need from any government department, that includes getting an electricity meter installed so you can get city power in less than a week, instead of six months. You pretty much pay anybody to do anything here and that itself has a very destabilizing effect.

There has been a stalemate between the top political contenders, Ayad Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki since the election ended in March. What do you think will happen?

On a day-to-day level, it's very hard for anybody here to get anything done unless they pay a bribe, and that includes getting documents that you need from any government department, that includes getting an electricity meter installed so you can get city power in less than a week, instead of six months.

Almost anything is the short answer, which is why this is so fascinating. It's fascinating because it's terribly important not just in the national sense, but in the regional sense. But it's also endlessly fascinating because if you look at the shifts in political alliances, you see people who started off saying that they would never have anything to do with some of the other political leaders now saying there are no red lines. We essentially see the same players we've had throughout this war. We've got Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; we've got Ibrahim Jaafari, who was the prime minister in 2005; we've got Ayad Allawi, who was the prime minister in 2004; we've got Muqtada al-Sadr--the major players haven't changed and they won't change. It's just really a matter of how they're all going to fit together.

What the United States wants to see, and what a lot of people do want to see, actually, is some sort of government in which Maliki has a role and Allawi has a role. Maliki is the front runner among the Shiites--he has perhaps the greatest personal popularity--and Allawi represents a very important constituency that is otherwise left out. When Iraqis went to the polls in March, this election was billed as absolutely crucial to Iraqi stability, crucial for U.S. troops to be able to leave, crucial for the United States to walk away from Iraq. This election needed to be broad-based and it needed to have a government that had Sunni participation. For better or worse, Allawi--a Shiite, but a secular Shiite--has a lot of that Sunni backing. He needs to be given a role, and this is agreed by pretty much everyone.

The problem is that Iraqis aren't used to compromise and almost six months later, that's what we're seeing: Nobody is compromising. Everyone wants to be prime minister. One of the things suggested that would be backed by the United States would be the creation of a superstructure that would oversee strategic policies and security policies, and look at all oil policies. The proposal was that it would be headed by Allawi and that Malaki would be prime minister. Now, the problem about that is it's unconstitutional.

So you can't really predict, then, who will emerge as the prime minister unless they work out this new superstructure?

I'm not discounting Maliki. The thing with Maliki is that he aligned himself with the other major Shiite players. They have proposed a series of measures that will limit his power. The Sadrists will not support him as prime minister because he sent the Iraqi army into Baghdad and into Basra to get rid of their militia. They've actually suggested that they could pull out of that coalition and back Allawi, which would be an interesting development.

But whatever way you cut it, Maliki remains a key politician simply because he has support on the street. It's entirely unclear as to whether Allawi will back down or whether Maliki will accept a reduced role as prime minister, and agree to have his power curtailed. We keep thinking that perhaps there's a lot going on beneath the surface, but apparently there isn't. It is what it is. It's stalled. There's talk about what to do, but nothing's been established yet.

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