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Iraq Update

Speakers: Deborah Amos, Foreign Correspondent, National Public Radio; Author, Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East, Michael Corbin, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Trudy S. Rubin, Foreign Affairs Columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer
March 17, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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MODERATOR: Welcome to today's council meeting. I would like to introduce the speakers. And before I do that, let me please ask you to completely turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys, all wireless devices because they interfere with the sound system. And I'd like to remind the members that the meeting is on the record, and Council members around the country and around the world are participating through a password-protected teleconference.

We have a terrific panel today, and even if the Iraqis haven't figured out who's in charge, if this panel can't tell us, then I don't know who can -- (laughs) -- Deborah Amos, to my left, a long-time foreign correspondent for NPR; much time spent in Iraq; author if "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East;" to her right, on your side, Michael Corbin, deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of NEA, with special responsibility for Iraq; and the far panelist, Meghan O'Sullivan, known to many of you for her years of terrific work in Iraq on the National Security Council, now an adjunct senior fellow at the Council, and the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School at Harvard.

Let me start off by asking Michael, are there any late-breaking results of the Iraqi election? Can you sort of bring us up to date with what we know and what we don't know?

MICHAEL CORBIN: Well, I'm honored to go first.

And basically, we are following very closely a process -- which is being led by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, to counts votes. And during this period, there are -- the process to file complaints about the system are being filed as the Iraqi High Electoral Commission releases the results. So the late-breaking event today was that the State of Law Coalition, led by Prime Minister Maliki, filed complaints about Baghdad -- which is somewhat new, but this is part of the process that we're going through. As people -- as the votes are counted, and as the jockeying goes between the different coalitions, there's lots of fascinating little elements that are coming out, but it's too early to say "big results."

What I would say is that Prime Minister Maliki and the State of Law Coalition seem to have done well -- very well, but also the Iraqiyya, the secular coalition led by Iyad Allawi, has done well also. And so there's now a jockeying for the top three places between those two coalitions and the Shi'a coalition, the INA, which appears this time to be in a third place.

MODERATOR: I'm curious to ask any of you who want to take this on, do you see this election -- so far, with what we know, as a victory for sectarianism or as evidence of a new nationalism? After all, the party that's in the lead is called "State of Law," and Prime Minister Maliki tried to downplay the sectarian aspect of the party; you have Iyad Allawi who was trading on a nationalist call; and even the third runner party, the Iraqi National Alliance, made up of Sunnis; the Sadrists, who are very definitely a religious party, are claiming they're nationalists.

So how do you evaluate this? Are we moving towards a new nationalist outlook? Is that what the public wants? Or is this really sectarianism in disguise?

Anyone who wants to take that on.

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN: Since Deb is looking at me, I'll take that on. First, let me thank you, Trudy (sp), for moderating us tonight, and it's a pleasure to be here.

That's a question that you could argue it either way. And I would say that the election thus far has really demonstrate that Iraq is in the process of evolving towards -- hopefully, away from a primarily sectarian-based system to something that is more than a sectarian-based system. Certainly, the pre-elections problems really underscore that sectarianism is still a major factor in Iraq, and that it is still people's sectarian -- or ethnic identities are still very much a part of how they see themselves and how they interact with one another.

But if we look at the results, what was really striking to me, as Michael said, we don't quite know what party will come out on top, and in some ways that's not even the most important thing anymore. But what we see is that, for the first time, if you were a Sunni or a Shi'a, and, say, you decided, well, 'I'm going to vote for someone of my own sectarian identity,' you at least had a choice this time.

The last two elections you, generally -- you know, there was a party that the Shi'a voted for, and a party the Kurds voted for, and if you were Sunni you had a few different options. This time you had a choice, and it looks like people chose the less sectarian of the options. And so I think that's a positive thing.

I think really what matters the most now, Trudy (sp), is, What does the government look like that's formed? One of the things that I'm concerned about is the possibility of a government that excludes one community group. And Iraq's politics are still -- because they have the sectarian orientation, if you exclude a group, that may mean that you're equating political exclusion with exclusion from power, and that's still a fuel -- could be a fuel for violence in Iraq.

DEBORAH S. AMOS: I want to say that there were some disturbing signs before the elections that kind of played out here. In the provincial elections, it looked like Iraq really was breaking out, that Maliki, in American terms, you know, moved to the center, and courted Sunnis, courted Sunni politicians, spoke in a nationalist language. But it took one event. It took Ahmad Chalabi's banning -- and his group banning 500 candidates to bring Iraqis back to that moment where they had to say, okay, I'm a Shi'a, and I'm a Sunni, and here's how I'm going to vote.

And I think that it shows you that those wounds are really not healed. And I agree that you had a choice, but still, many, many Iraqis votes on sectarian lines. We are way far from being away from that kind of feeling in the country. And a Lebanese politician talked about Iraq as a "democracy without democrats," and it feels that way as I watch what's happening.

CORBIN: Although, the sectarian structures -- and this is where you compare with the provincial elections last year, the way people actually voted shows a support for getting people out of office and for not voting for the sectarians. And the article today, talking about the Sadrists -- and they probably haven't done as well as suggested, but the Sadrists weren't in power, so they're a choice for people who want to throw people out, as they did, universally, last time in the provincial elections.

So while the structures are still sectarian, when you look at people are actually voting, they're voting secular candidates, they're voting for parties that aren't formed on sectarian lines. So it will still be a structure that's sectarian, but there are signs of progress.

MODERATOR: Well, Deb, let me ask you specifically about Sunnis. Here you have the bulk of the Sunnis voting for an alliance that's led by a secular Shi'a. So how far can this go; or is Iyad Allawi really a sort of "trans-sectarian gender" (laughs) and he's not really a Shi'ite anymore, as some Shi'ites will say --

AMOS: Sure, yes.

MODERATOR: -- but do you see the Sunnis actually having a role in this next election? Can we say yet, does their participation indicate that perhaps the eclipse of the Sunnis isn't complete?

AMOS: Well, I mean, we have to see how the coalition-building goes. I mean, what we are talking about is, you know, who has the most votes. Nobody won. Nobody, outright, can form a government without making some alliances. And now we get into the three-dimensional chess and vicious musical chairs.

You know, the structure before was you had three presidents, and now we have one. And so I think that certainly my -- the people I read about, the refugees are watching exactly this process. They want to know who's going to be the president. And it's either going to be a Kurd or a Sunni. Somebody's going to be left out.

MODERATOR: So just to follow on that point, is the future decision on whether the president will continue to be a Kurd or will be a Sunni, will that be a strong signal as to whether the Sunnis feel included in the political structure?

AMOS: It won't be just the president, but what kind of cabinet positions they get, where they are salted throughout the government. But this is going to be a package deal, and it's going to be based more on, 'Can I put together a ruling coalition so I can be the prime minister?' And I think we're going to get very surprised about people breaking out of their alliances, and there is going to be some very strange bedfellows before this is all over.

CORBIN: And that where it's important that there isn't one coalition that's won. It's not -- as Meghan said, it's not who's won now, it's the fact that coalition politics means that in order for your community to get its interests met, you're going to have to cooperate with others.

And the fact that they're close means that it's going to be messy, it's going to be ugly, there's going to be lots of complaints about the system, but if people using the political process to get their communities' interests met, you have a chance. And that's where the balancing will be seen.

And the Sunnis had a claim on the presidency, but because they couldn't all get together and support one candidate, or support -- get into alliances that would be stronger, they have diminished their ability to get that. So what we'll see (in) this process now as to what the Sunnis will be offered to balance the fact that they may not get the -- Talabani, the Kurd, may keep on as president.

AMOS: And I also wonder about coalition-building. All of them have said, 'I can't be in a coalition with him unless he agrees to do X,' so all of them have boxed themselves into corners, and we're going to see in the next couple of months if they know how to compromise.

O'SULLIVAN: But I would point out, as I'm sure you know, Deb, this is not different from the last two government formation processes after the two elections in 2005, that because of the constitution and the way that the structures are set, there's still a lot of incentive to have cross-community cooperate in order to get a package deal, as Deb mentioned, with the president, the two vice presidents at the time, the prime minister, and basically the cabinet. And so what I think that we're going to see is that this is going to be -- this is just going to be an ongoing process.

AMOS: But, you know, I was thinking if you look at the voting results in Salahuddin and Anbar, it's 70, 75 percent. It's the kind of numbers that you saw in the South in --

MODERATOR: Who are voting --

AMOS: Who are voting.

MODERATOR: -- in areas where Sunnis didn't vote before.

AMOS: So there's a raised expectation about, 'Okay we're in now. Now what do we get?'

O'SULLIVAN: Right.

And just to finish my thought, in both previous occasions they've hammered out extensive political programs before they formed the government. That's one of the reasons -- and I think we're assuming a really high level of Iraqi domestic politic knowledge in the room, and that may not be accurate, but the last government took almost six months to form, the previous government took three months to form, and they may do exactly this. They may hammer out all these compromises, all these negotiations before they actually agree on the government.

And, you know, I think you're right, there will be a trade-off. And you can look at all of these parties, and there are -- and personalities, things that people want, and things that people are saying are non-negotiable, and things that people will compromise on. And the big things to watch are the presidency; whether there are new structures created outside the constitution to accommodate some of the losers, so losers become bought into the system; and key issues like Kirkuk.

Is that going to be something that -- it's definitely going to be something they're talking about or are talking about right now, but to what extent is that going to figure in the compromises? Because if you look at this shape that's emerging, you see Allawi coming forward strongly. He has, historically, very close relationships with the Kurds and very close relationships with ISCI. You could this coming together, in terms of a government, except for the fact that Allawi's partners are, in some cases, very strong Arab nationalists, which often translates into being very against Kurdish demands.

So, again, you know, either people are going to fracture or there's going to be pretty prolonged negotiations.

MODERATOR: All right, well, we have the "nationalist" word out there. Let's ask about, you know, another big word that is always floating around as to its influence on Iraqi politics, which is Iran.

Now, everyone would have assumed that Iran was betting on the Iraqi National Alliance, made up of ISCI, of a Shi'ite religious party that once was very powerful, and the Sadrists, whose head has been rusticating Qom trying to get some religious credentials; and, lo and behold, the Shi'ite religious party that used to do so well has fallen low, and Sadr seems to be making a comeback.

So let me ask you -- and first of all, what does this say about Iran's influence in these elections? Is Iran less of an influence on Iraqi politics than we previously surmised? And why are the Shi'ite religious parties shaking out the way they did?

CORBIN: Well, Iran is -- we always overestimate Iranian influence in Iraq. And the Iranians, remember, wanted all the Shi'a parties to unite together. They wanted Maliki to join the main Shi'a Islamic party. Maliki refused to do that. The Shi'as were not -- the Iranians were unsuccessful. The Iranians were unsuccessful in the provincial elections last year; they were unsuccessful in defeating the security agreement with the United States and the Strategic Framework Agreement.

What we see is that the Iranian, who have their own problems, would like to influence things in Iraq, but they are going to have a very difficult time doing that. They've tried to use soft power, but they don't have the economic wherewithal to make a difference now that Iraq is pursuing its oil. They do not have the ability to mobilize people the way they used to. And if, as I argue, people are voting for Sadrists because they're voting to throw people out rather than voting to support Iran, I think it further supports that.

And just to follow up on Meghan's point, I think it's also important to focus on the context that we're looking at this new government forming. When you look at 2006 -- when you looked at the unprofessional status of the Iraqi security forces, when you've looked at the sectarian nature of the situation and the fact that the Council of Representatives had not had the time to develop; when you look at, now -- the U.S. forces are out of the cities, the Iraqi security forces are a much more professional force that are trusted by a larger part of the Iraqi population; when you look at the fact that the Council of Representatives has had a period to challenge the powers of the prime minister, where the judiciary is coming back, the context in which government formation will take place will be far more positive than the violence of 2006.

AMOS: Can I say a word about the Sadrists. I mean, in part the Sadrists did well because the Sadrists were clever. You know, in the same way that the Gaza election took place, where Hamas was very strategic about how they put their candidates, and Fatah had, like, five or six, Hamas had one. And the Sadrists did exactly the same thing.

And so ISCI was just sloppy. The Sadrists are exactly those democrats --

MODERATOR: In other words, the ISCIs split their votes. They had too many candidates on the ballot, and Sadrists all said, vote for the one.

AMOS: Yeah, vote for this guy.

And so that has nothing to do with Iran, it just has to do with they took their democracy lessons to heart. They've now elected a guy in Sadr City who has been accused of being part of death squads in the ministry of health, and everybody's just, you know, terrifically happy that this guy is -- (laughs) -- going to be in the parliament. But, you know, that's what we have to deal with.

CORBIN: And because of the threshold that you -- because of this partially-open list system, a threshold means you have to get 100,000 votes. So just because they have done well does not translate automatically into seats in parliament. So they will -- they will do better than ISCI has done, as it appears so far, but this doesn't mean that the Sadrists are suddenly going to become the determining nature of the next coalition in Iraq.

AMOS: But you don't know that they won't. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Just for the information of everyone, does anyone dare -- perhaps Michael, to describe this ballot, which, if they had a system like this here, probably 20 percent of people would go to presidential elections?

CORBIN: (Laughs.) There's been a lot of discussion of the "hanging chad" -- (laughter) -- theories in Iraq. But they had a practice with the provincial elections last year. The IHEC, the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, had a chance -- with a lot of help from UNAMI, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, to develop processes, to get the information out.

It is complicated. It's a complicated process, and there are many, many parties running, and this partially-open list is complicated. But we think that by the way that the complaints are being filed with IHEC now, and there isn't the calls for -- although Allawi made some comments right after the election about how disappointed he was now that the results have shown that he's maybe competing equally with the State of Law alliance -- we're seeing people are focusing on the process rather than focusing on challenging (with ?) outside of the process.

O'SULLIVAN: Could I just say one thing about the significance of the change? For those of you that don't follow Iraqi electoral law as closely as the people up here, this is the first time in a national parliamentary election that Iraqis could vote for an individual. In the past, they voted for a party, and the party would essentially determine who from the party got into parliament. So this actually, I expect, is going to translate into some pretty big earthquakes in Iraqi politics. A lot of people who have been serious figures in Iraqi politics over the last seven years are going to be out. And not only are they going to be out, they are going to have gotten an embarrassingly --

MODERATOR: Yes. (Laughs.)

O'SULLIVAN: -- small number of votes. And so this actually -- this is, I think -- and this is partially how we understand the Sadrists, and understand the ISCI vote, and a whole lot of other votes. If you look, I think you'll find that Iraqis voted for people locally; you know, that those candidates that did best were candidates that, you know, lived among their community. Iraqis are kind of like other people in parliamentary systems, and so I think you'll see a lot of that.

And I think you -- it will have a change in character to Iraqi politics. For a long time, for years we've been talking about, you know, when is the new generation of Iraqi politics going to come up? We'll still see some of the old faces up top, but I think a lot of the newcomers in parliament are -- there'll be a lot of newcomers in parliament.

MODERATOR: Let me just get to the Kurds. The Kurds always, in the past, have been the kingmakers because they had a solid bloc and they could throw it one way or another. What role are the Kurds going to play this time, given that they have some problems of their own?

CORBIN: I wouldn't term them "problems," -- (laughs) -- I would call them, in fact, an interesting -- other interesting developments. And that --

(Cross talk.)

CORBIN: -- interesting development is the Kurdish system -- which has had its own ossification, has now seen the arrival of this change list, the Goran list, which has made an impact in these elections. And one of the two traditional Kurdish parties, the one of President Talabani, has been challenged by Goran. And as votes are coming in, we're seeing that Goran will be a factor.

Now, I would argue, and early to say, but the Kurds will still have a king-maker role to play. And they will be -- and this is part of coalition politics -- they will still be a part of the coalition that's formed, because they will have one of the largest blocks of seats.

But what is interesting is that politics in Kurdistan is changing, and there are new factors that may actually change things in that part of the country that we're looking at also. And this is just another point of elections where people actually get to vote.

AMOS: What impact is the U.S. drawdown -- and we're supposed to be down to 50,000 troops by late summer, as I believe -- how is that going to affect the situation, especially since there might be coalitions building for several months? Or have we reached the point where it's not going to affect the domestic political situation?

CORBIN: Well, I think that it will be a factor in the domestic political situation, and I argue that our influence, as the Iraqis move forward, they want a partnership based on something other than just the security relationship. And that's been made clear to us by everyone.

And we are developing -- as the military draws down, the State Department and the other civilian agencies are working on expanding the strategic framework agreement that I mentioned before on working with different elements of the Iraqi government -- not that that wasn't going on before, but this is becoming the more important element of cooperation.

The U.S. forces have been out of Iraqi cities since last June, as I mentioned. The role of U.S. forces in providing support for the elections was very different even than last year. The Iraqi security forces ran these elections. The Iraqi security forces did much better on logistics and on moving stuff around and on conducting operations against the insurgents, both after the elections and -- before the elections and after the elections.

So we see the drawdown not having the enormous impact that some people are suggesting. We see this as part of the Obama administration's policy of a change that the Iraqis want themselves, which is a traditional bilateral relationship with all the elements of that relationship. And it may include security. I think it will likely include security. But it won't be a predominant factor of our bilateral relationship.

AMOS: That doesn't mean that there's going to be smooth sailing between now and the time that we know who the Iraqi government is. Losers in Iraq tend to use violence on the street to make their point. And this will be a test to see. So I think right now that's a reasonable way to look at the landscape. But there's time to go. I know that there's been a lot of writing in the press comparing this time, as they do their coalition-building, to 2005. It's not 2005 anymore, not at all. But, you know, there could be some rough times.

O'SULLIVAN: Can I just --

AMOS: Meghan, sure.

O'SULLIVAN: -- say a couple of things on the U.S. role?

First, I agree, Michael, entirely on the Iraqis' desire for robust bilateral relationship with the United States on, again, not military terms and potentially military terms.

But just two points on that. On the military side, I think it's easy for us in the United States to forget that the deadline of having all combat troops out by August 2010 is not a deadline that was negotiated between the U.S. and Iraqis. That is the deadline that President Obama put into place when he made his Iraq speech last February. So it's much more of a U.S. deadline.

And most Iraqis I talk to are not actually aware of that deadline. If you're an Iraqi today, you don't see U.S. troops that often. They're out of towns and cities. So in some ways it's not such a bad situation. You don't see them, but they're there.

So the August deadline, you know, has a little bit more flexibility than the deadline of last June or the deadline of the end of next year, which was a U.S.-Iraqi very intensely negotiated deadline, and the Iraqis are watching those closely.

And secondly, just I would say the more interesting thing to be watching on the U.S. side will be what will be the U.S. role, if any, in helping Iraqis overcome a deadline, if and when it arises? In the past, the U.S. has played a role in convening people, in proposing creative compromises. And, you know, I mean, the value of getting people together in a room who don't want to talk to one another when you're at an impasse is actually larger than one would think. So it'll be interesting to see if the U.S. is willing to play that role if necessary.

AMOS: And who else is in the room, because even when the coalitions were building --

O'SULLIVAN: Yeah.

AMOS: -- and they were arguing about the dates, there were Turkish ambassadors in the room. There were Iranian ambassadors in the room. So it's a full party.

CORBIN: But when you look at the progression, from us having to bring the Iraqis together and present ideas to them to when the Iraqis would get together by themselves and we would provide the ideas to the electoral-law crisis of last fall, when the Iraqis got together by themselves and they came up with Iraqi solutions to their problems, you see a real progression, as we move forward, about how the Iraqis are able to deal with this. But we will absolutely continue to be involved, because the Iraqis asked us to get involved, and because we see a diplomatic role that can be very positive.

Just one thing on -- the combat troops won't be out at the end of August. The combat -- and this is something that gets very confusing -- but the combat mission will be over, but there still will be 50,000 troops up until the end of 2011. And there are areas -- it won't be smooth sailing. The Kurd-Arab fault line, the border that hasn't been demarcated in most areas, is going to be one of those areas where the presence of U.S. troops, working both with the Kurdish Peshmerga and with the Iraqi army units, will be extremely important.

However, U.S. troops in Basra, which is returning to its important economic status because of the closeness of the oil fields, are not going to be so important. So there are areas where the U.S. forces will remain important in their role, but it will be part of a broader relationship.

AMOS: At this point I'd like to open it to questions for the members. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. And please stand and state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question. And, if you can, please be precise.

Yes.

QUESTIONER: Laurie Garrett from the Council.

I know, Deb, you have a new book coming out that deals with the Iraqis that no longer live in Iraq. And I wonder if you could tell us what kind of a wild card they represent. Were they allowed to vote? If they weren't, and they returned, do they feel enfranchised? What kind of wild card is that?

AMOS: They were allowed to vote. And, in fact, about a quarter of a million of them did in 16 countries. And that vote hasn't been counted yet, and it will make a difference. That's a lot of votes.

In the place where they -- the biggest number, in Damascus, 42,000 voted. It's interesting to look at the numbers. That's actually lower than I would have expected, lower than the electoral commission. They thought somewhere between 140,000 and 180,000 would vote. Either it means there aren't as many as we thought there or it means that they are cynical. They think that they've been forgotten, they're annoyed, and they don't have a buy-in to Iraq, although we do know that 42,000 do. It's about the same number that voted in Jordan, Sweden, the United States and Iran. That's where the big clumps were, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000.

I think that they all were watching this election very, very closely, because, as I have written and say all the time, Iraq is a virtual country now. This is not like a refugee population we've ever seen. They're completely integrated into Iraq. They just don't happen to live there. And for them, the stakes are -- 60 percent of the refugees are Sunnis. Is there a buy-in for Sunni power sharing in the country? That will determine whether they do come back. And if they don't, then you do have instability in the region because this is such a large population.

Well, the latest -- boy, people argue about the numbers, but I always go back to the latest quarterly report that the U.S. government puts out, and they say 1.9 million are out. There's no widespread returns. Two-point-three-five million are displaced, and that number has stayed fairly steady. There's been more people who returned in the displacement category, less people who've returned in the exile category.

CORBIN: And two quick things on that also. One of the things, though, people had to prove when they voted outside was their provincial residency, which was hard for some people. And ballots have -- and you will read in the press that ballots have been disallowed already. So there will be some discussion. The Sunnis also overestimate how many people are outside of Iraq and will hope for more influence than these will have.

And then I'll just make a point that the Christian minorities, who are under such pressure and who are targeted by the insurgents and the terrorists, are a community that's in Syria and other places in the United States, who have somewhat different calculations about what's going on. They do have -- and they do have -- we work very hard to help keep them included in the Iraqi tapestry, but this is something that -- this is a community that's different, for example, in the Sunni and Shi'a communities that are outside.

AMOS: And even three weeks before the elections, they were under attack in Mosul, and many of them couldn't vote.

CORBIN: Families did come back to Mosul to vote, which was an important signal. But it is an issue that we follow very closely. And Maliki and the government made special comments before the elections about getting the Christians -- protecting them so they could vote.

AMOS: Yes.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Alan Rappaport, Roundtable Investment Partners.

Could you roll the clock forward and look at the next set of elections and the effectiveness of the next government, and, based on your current view of progress and trends, provide an observation and perspective?

CORBIN: Who has the crystal ball? (Laughs.) I'll take a stab at it. If the Iraqi people have truly chosen politics rather than violence as a way of solving hundreds-of-years-old issues, then we -- and if this coalition process can work and the economy can be fueled by the oil development from the outside, and economic capabilities can take off and job creation, then I would see a continued messy political situation where the parties all are jockeying for influence. And I do see that there will be solutions on some of the issues.

But there are some intractable issues, such as Kirkuk, where it's going to take a long time to figure out a solution to Kirkuk. So I'd say that there isn't a threat of violence from the insurgents, whoever they're supported by, that can overthrow this political process now. The problem will be, can the Kurd-Arab problems be addressed? And can the economy produce jobs so people don't become disaffected?

AMOS: And so much depends on how this coalition shakes out and if Sunnis believe that they have a buy-in. It was interesting to me to watch the numbers of -- in the south, where there was no violence at all, in 2005 Shi'as voted in the 70, 75 percentile. And now that vote is falling back to 60. And it must have been a little bit lower, because that would have made up for the Sunni vote.

This, you could say, was the first time Sunnis really were in a national election. Their vote was up to 70, 75 percent. So do they become that little bit disillusioned, as the Shi'as in the south did, who this time, you know, didn't think it was such a great thing to go and vote? I think coalition-building will tell us a lot. That's why I think it's so hard. It's easy to be vague about the future. But you need to see how this government shakes out to know really the direction that the country's going.

CORBIN: Although Sunnis did vote in the second elections in 2005. And when you look at participation statistics, actually in some areas more Sunnis didn't vote this time. So what we're seeing is that maybe expectations, although they will be high, won't be as high as some people thought. And some of the traditional parties have done badly in the Sunni parties -- the IIP, the Iraqi Islamic Party. So I think that's important to note.

O'SULLIVAN: That's right. And I would just simply underscore a point that Michael made, and that's, you know, what's the right bar for success? And for me, if you tell me in your crystal ball, five years', 10 years' time, that Iraqis still have all these outstanding issues, you know, I'll be disappointed on one level. But if you tell me that they're tackling them by politics and not violence and there is not a serious number of American troops in that country, I will consider that progress.

I mean, it could take them as long as it took our country to figure out, you know, what the right balance of power is between Baghdad and the provinces in the regions. That's the number one issue that underlays a lot of their political problems. But as long as this is an issue that is being resolved in the political realm, I think, you know, that's a reasonable standard for progress.

CORBIN: And after 25 years of serving in the Middle East, off and on, looking at certain things that aren't in the press, like the power of regional governors on their budget, which is unique in the region, like the freedom of the press, which, although sometimes under threat, is unique in the region, like the new civil-society law that was adopted by the council of representatives, when you look at these type of things in this region, it's quite impressive for someone who's just traveled around.

AMOS: I have a question from national member John Norton Moore from the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He's asking, "During the period before a new government -- presumably Prime Minister Maliki will stay on -- how effective can the government be under those circumstances? And will middle- and lower-level Iraqi officials continue to hold jobs until a new government is in place?" I'll add, let alone ministers.

CORBIN: Just quickly, one of our focuses has been the caretaker government, because it is absolutely crucial that services and security continue through what will be, we predict, a long government formation process. So using things like the strategic framework agreement, where we have these joint committees that are technocratic, we are working with the ministries. We're working with the technocrats in the ministries.

We're making sure that the ministers are coming back to their chairs and continuing the electricity deals, the opening of the oil fields, those factors that are essential for (their spirit ?), and security. We've got to not return to what we had in 2006, where there were bodies turning up in the streets. So we are focused on the caretaker government. And we believe Prime Minister Maliki will respect the constitution, as he has done, and will keep going with those services.

AMOS: Yes.

O'SULLIVAN: I'd just point out -- and I appreciate that actually this has been American focus during this time. It will be harder to get things done. You know, the best-case scenario is it's just going to be harder. You know, some things may be impossible, because even if there's not a power vacuum, as arose in 2006, and that power vacuum turns into a security vacuum, even if we don't have that situation, there are just inevitably -- think if our government took six months to make a transition and nobody knew the outcome.

In terms of people wanting to put their names on decisions, already it's difficult in Iraq because people are fearful of corruption allegations, so people don't like to sign things. So you can just imagine that things will be harder to do in Iraq, although, you know, I agree that Prime Minister Maliki recognizes that he will be prime minister until someone else is.

CORBIN: Although I'll note that the U.S. government was closed for a week for "Snowmageddon," and everything went just fine. (Laughter.)

O'SULLIVAN: Dust storms.

QUESTIONER: My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer.

Mr. Corbin mentioned that one of the foundations of democracy is going to be economic progress and jobs, and that in turn depends on oil production. What is the projection for oil production, if there is one, for the next couple of years? I believe the current level, which is about the same as it was pre-war, is about 2.5 million barrels a day. So what might we reasonably expect it to grow to?

CORBIN: First of all, the sector that will create, we think, many more jobs than oil is agriculture. And Iraq has a traditional agriculture base and is one of the few countries in the region where people actually want to return to agriculture. Irrigated agriculture can be very important there.

But in terms of oil, the problem with Iraq is not the lack of new oil to develop. It's the infrastructure. It's the pipelines that need to be built. It's the undersea connection to the terminals out in the Gulf that needed to be replaced 20 years ago and could break at any time.

The Iraqis are about 2 million barrels. They keep around that level, not because they don't have more oil to produce, but because their infrastructure can't handle more now. And that's an opening for the U.S. oil-service companies to get in there, because we have the best technology for oil fields and for pipelines, and so we will be involved there and that will be an opening for the economy. But predictions are about seven years until we see this oil coming online in the quantities that some people talked about when the big rounds were announced.

But the jobs will start creating soon, and the possibilities and the investment will come as the climate -- as these companies get in there and see that they can do security, that they can work through the bureaucratic red tape, and that they can work in the Iraqi context.

O'SULLIVAN: And if Iraq produces even a fraction of what those 10 contracts suggest that it should over that time period, this will have major geopolitical ramifications in the region. You'll have Iraq producing, you know, much, much more than it ever has. You'll have pressures for Iraq to come under an OPEC quota. You'll probably have a lot of tension between Iraq and Saudi Arabia about this.

And potentially you'll have something that challenges how effective OPEC is. OPEC has always operated on the basis that the bulk of spare capacity is in Saudi Arabia; one actor controls it. And it's the basis of Saudi dominance. And if you have a lot of spare capacity in two countries, this is going to change the dynamic of OPEC. And it could influence OPEC's ability to keep a floor under the price, which some people may think is good, but certainly not if you're interested in alternative energy.

AMOS: Just to follow up on that, I'm curious what your thinking is about how that will influence the relationship between Iraq and Iran and Iran's hope for hegemony in the region.

O'SULLIVAN: I think it's a major challenge to that idea. Iran and Iraq were always viewed as competitors or, you know, peers -- actually, that's the right word -- peers within OPEC. Their quotas were at the same amount. And for those of you who don't know, Iraq is not currently held to an OPEC quota. The last time it was held to an OPEC quota was before the first Gulf War, and then the quota was around 3.5. And so Iran and Iraq always had the same quotas. And now Iraq is really seeing that its peer is not Iran; its peer is Saudi Arabia, and that's how the Iraqis are talking now.

This of course is really going to get under the fingernails of Iran along with a variety of other things. And you really -- when you look at the region and how the region has or has not welcomed Iraq into the region, it's interesting note to say that I would say -- and Michael I invite you to agree or disagree -- I'd say Turkey has been the most welcoming in a lot of dimensions. That's in part because they have the most to gain from Iraq being a really big energy producers, where a lot of these other countries really have very little interest in Iraq becoming one of the largest producers in the world.

CORBIN: And it is -- Turkish interests are in the energy direction. But I would also argue it's a new Islamic secularist, Islamic government that has focused on a solution to the Kurdish terrorist problem that isn't solely military-driven. And that involves dealing with Iraq. And that's the positive side of the relationship between Turkey and Baghdad and Kurdistan. And that's where we see the greatest potential for the future.

QUESTIONER: I'm David Phillips with Columbia University.

It looks as though Turkey is hedging its bets a bit, reaching out to the Kurdistan regional government while it's still playing for a strong unified Iraq. I think, Deb, you said that the Kurds were still likely to be the king-makers.

AMOS: Could be.

QUESTIONER: If that's the case, are they going to be able to predetermine a deal on the presidency, on an oil and revenue-sharing law, or Article 140, and if so, with whom are they most likely to e able to cut that deal?

AMOS: Boy, I don't have a clue. But -- (laughter) -- but I just wanted to go back to something that Michael said about agriculture because you remind me of it, speaking of Turkey. I mean, for Iraq to be -- to back to a big agricultural sector, they have to be make a deal with the Turks on water, and they haven't. Syria has started down this road. They have a bit of a deal, but you can't. It's almost impossible for Iraq to go back to that without that water deal, which makes an oil deal with Turkey and attractive offering.

CORBIN: Well, they have made progress with Turkey. It turned out that Syria had to agree also. And Syria didn't agree because one of the rivers goes through. But it actually -- I think there is enough -- the rainfall and so on in Iraq was enough or them to have an agricultural base. The main problem they have now is the Iranians have cut off the water to Diyala Province in the east where they used to have much more agriculture. So there is a possibility of agriculture. It would be enhanced working with the Turks and they are working with the Turks.

Going back to the question, I would say that the Kurds absolutely will want these issues on the table, but they understand that they can't make maximalist demands when the U.S. and others are waiting for a government to be formed. And this will be a coalition process.

We already see that Kurdish oil, for example, is now -- there were discussions about revenue sharing before the elections because I think there's a greater realization that the large oil fields in the south and elsewhere will be much more significant than the oil that the Kurds have. There was already an agreement to have some Kurdish oil flow into the northern pipeline that the Iraqis manage.

So there are signs that there will be discussions and negotiations on this. The Kurds will certainly be part of the negotiation process on the new government and will be part of the new government. So I think this is part of the process.

O'SULLIVAN: And just since we are all throwing a chip in on this question, I would first disagree that the Turks are necessarily hedging their bets on an independent Kurdistan. I think that it's completely rational that they have relationships with the KRG and with Baghdad, and I think this is a vast improvement over the previous five years where they only wanted to deal with Baghdad, when in fact a lot of their issues had to be worked with the KRG.

And I think that has come about in part of a political realization, but also an economic one just in terms of the economic relationship between the KRG and Turkey is quite substantial.

In terms of -- I agree the Kurds are going to push to get a variety of issues, and their leverage is highest at this period right now. It may be different with Goran. Goran might be willing to lend a Kurdish character to the government. Before, there's been no other Kurdish party to dance with.

In terms of historically, if you look at just the relationships between people and parties, the Kurds have had a very close relationship with Ayad Allawi. But as I mentioned before, his running mates are anything but sympathetic to the Kurds. The Kurds have also had a very, very strong historical relationship with ISCI, the part of the United Iraqi Alliance in the south, and the Sadirists, you know, not so much.

So really, if you're going to see the Kurds being a king-maker, which we well could see, I think I would predict a fracturing of the current political slates.

AMOS: I'd just add one thing on Turkey because I've been to Ankara and talked about this issue with Turkish officials, including they represented a special representative to Iraq. And they made a decision that honey worked better than -- and they basically have bound the Kurds to the north -- in the north to them with cement in construction and business and jobs and it's worked. And they've also downplayed their emphasis on the Turkmen, which they used to use as a club. And they're much more strategic about using the Turkmen issue, and, yes.

QUESTIONER: Mary Boies, a lawyer at Boies & McInnis.

What is the status of the referendum on Kirkuk, and how do you see that playing out?

CORBIN: Well, the referendum on Kirkuk is part of the Article 140 process, which deals with all of the disputed areas including Kirkuk along the border between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. UNAMI has done reports on all of the disputed areas, including Kirkuk, that lay out the facts. There was a high-level taskforce that was meeting up to the time of the elections, that was organized by UNAMI but included representatives, senior representatives from the KRG and the government of Iraq.

This is a process that will take time. There's a question of how the referendum will be done. There's a question of who will -- what the questions will be in this referendum. It's something that is part of the process that we move forward on, and we are committed to address this DIBs process, but in support of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq's lead role on this, and in conjunction with the government of Iraq, whatever government is formed at the central government, and the Kurdish government, the Kurdish regional government as we go forward.

QUESTIONER: Is there no longer a time frame?

CORBIN: Well, as in Iraq, with many things --

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

CORBIN: Yeah. So as I was going to say, many time frames are passed and deadlines are missed, so the time frame is passed. This is not an issue that is going to drop off the agenda; it's very much on the KRG, the Kurdish regional government's agenda, and they will continue -- Article 140 is something that they raise in all of their discussions. So it is something that will be addressed; it's just the deadline has passed; there is no new deadline.

O'SULLIVAN: My guess is that that will be part of what we see rolled out with a new government, that the Kurds will negotiate a specific timeline. It won't be the first, as Michael said, but it may be in relationship to new plans to hold a census. So I imagine that again, this will be something that will be up front and center in the new negotiations. Yes.

QUESTIONER: We hear a lot about Iran's influence on Iraq and Turkey's influence on Iraq. But it seems that Saudi Arabia has about as much at stake as anybody, and we don't hear a lot of about that. Could anybody briefly comment on what, if anything, the Saudis are doing to manipulate the process in what they would like to see in terms of outcomes both with the current government forming and the process of developing the oil?

AMOS: Well, they certainly took a public stand by meeting Iyad Allawi. And they have never shown an interest in meeting Nouri al-Maliki. And by all accounts inside of Iraq, they put a lot of money in the campaign of Iyad Allawi. So, yes, they had a stake in the elections and put their money where they would like the votes to go.

CORBIN: I would just add that Iraq seeks constructive relationships with all of its neighbors and we support that process. And the issue will be how that works out. And it's different with Iran; it's different with Syria; it's different with Kuwait, which has real issues to deal with with Iraq. And we're supporting the Iraqi efforts. They've had success with Egypt; they've had success with Turkey. Each country will be different in the way it interacts with Iraq.

But we really -- you can't -- on the Saudi relationship, the Saudis are, I think, as with many Arab countries, waiting for the new government to form, and that's one of the areas where we will continue to pressure them to help Iraq develop into a constructive force in the region, unlike the time that went back before Saddam Hussein where for 50 years, the Iraqis were a negative force: starting wars, repressing their own people and having issues with both Jordan and Syria that went on for years. So the issue is constructive relations with everyone.

MODERATOR: I have another question from a national member, Charles Cogen at Harvard's Kennedy School: What's the post-election position of Ahmed Chalabi -- (laughter) -- and what is the American attitude towards him at present? Michael.

CORBIN: Ahmed Chalabi, as a survivor he's been around for a long time. He's a candidate in the elections and we don't support any candidate, and we will see what happens to Ahmed Chalabi as he goes forward.

MODERATOR: How did he do in the elections?

CORBIN: We actually -- actually, I don't know how he did which shows that we aren't focused on Ahmed Chalabi. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: But Ahmed Chalabi as the force behind the questionably legal de-Ba'athification committee, we did have some position on what was going on there, which affects Ahmed Chalabi.

CORBIN: Absolutely. We thought it was inappropriate as did the Iraqi system that a candidate for the elections should try and rule on the capability or the legality of other candidates running in that election. So we saw and we saw the Iraqis move that from the AJC to the legal system, to the court of --

MODERATOR: And ignore what the legal system --

CORBIN: Well, no, the decisions weren't ignored; it's a question of how the process will be applied. And the decisions haven't been made yet. This is still an issue that is out there and will need to be addressed. But it was not the AJC; it was the Iraqi judiciary that took the decisions on how to approach the elections.

MODERATOR: But no major politician stood up and said we're not doing this. It was to their advantage and they -- and so they let it pass.

CORBIN: No major politician stood up in support of what Chalabi was doing. They stood in support of the fact that Ba'athists are not by law allowed to run in the elections, and then they did support transferring it to the Iraqi judiciary system. So for political purposes I tend to agree with you, but when you look at what they publicly said and did, it ended up where it should be, which is the Iraqi judicial system, not in the hands of Chalabi.

MODERATOR: So may be the answer to the question is Ahmed Chalabi always manages to make his presence known. (Laughter.) And is there one last question? Herb.

QUESTIONER: Herbert Levin American China Society.

When we went into Iraq the second time, it was to eliminate their weapons of mass destruction if they had any, and they presumably don't have any now, and to allegedly stop their terrorism and if they were doing any they're not doing it now.

Everything after that has been aspirational. We're going to solve the thousand-year-old Shi'a-Sunni split. We're going to solve the Kurdish problem. And because they have oil the way the Iranians and the Saudis have developed democracy because they have oil, these goes are going to --

MODERATOR: And question.

QUESTIONER: -- develop democracy. It seems to me that the true believers in Baghdad have gotten us into a mess where we have excessive aspirations and that we should --

MODERATOR: And so the question is.

QUESTIONER: The question is what is our minimum for getting 50,000 American troops out of there?

CORBIN: Well, I think it's not our aspirations; it's the Iraqi's aspirations and that's the important thing. Iraqis have decided that they want to have a country and want they develop together to address some of their long-term problems. Our role in that is to facilitate it, to bring the troops home, to establish a partnership as we do with many other countries around the world that builds the areas where Iraq still has needs and helps them, and brings them back into the economy as a constructive force.

So what I would say is that we will have a partnership with them, as we have with other countries, but with the way they're developing and the way they're taking responsibility for their future is in our view a very positive development.

MODERATOR: And on that note, I thank the panelists very much and the audience. (Applause.)

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