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Media Conference Call: Previewing Iraq's Parliamentary Election

Speakers: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow
March 3, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR:  Excuse me, everyone.  We now have our speakers in conference.  Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode.  At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions.  At that time, instructions will be given if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Rachel Schneller.  Ms. Schneller, please begin.

RACHEL SCHNELLER:  Hello, everyone.  This is Rachel Schneller from the Council on Foreign Relations.  This afternoon, we have with us two very distinguished speakers on Iraq.

First of all, we have Meghan O'Sullivan, who is an adjunct senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Meghan O'Sullivan was special assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.  And she's currently the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of international affairs at Harvard University.

We also have with us today Brett McGurk, who is an international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Brett McGurk was director for Iraq and then special assistant to the president and senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan at the National Security Council from 2005 to 2009.

I'm going to start things off with a question.

First, I'd like to hear from you, Meghan.  The elections that are scheduled to take place on March 7th, that is this Sunday, is that kind of the end of an era?  Are we going to just then be able to say that, you know, this is the end and move on?  Or what do you expect to happen after the election?

MEGHAN L. O'SULLIVAN:  Well, in some ways, given how contentious the pre-election period was, I can understand if people feel like the election day is actually the end or the culmination of this moment in Iraq's political history.

The reality is, however, that this day, Sunday, the elections, is really the beginning of what is almost certainly to be a protracted process of forming Iraq's next government.  This government, if it runs its full course, as Prime Minister Maliki's government did, will be in place for four years.

And if we look back to the last two government formations that happened after Iraq's previous parliamentary elections, we see a very clear pattern, and that is that the elections are followed by a lull in violence, a period of renewed hope or euphoria, but then really internal fighting or jockeying really between parties and within parties, that leads to a prolonged process.

There's two real reasons why it has taken so long, both in 2005 and 2006.  The first are specific constitutional provisions that were put in place specifically to give minorities leverage in the government-formation process and to bring more moderate people to the fore.  That has worked, but it has also created a mechanism where, in order to get the necessary two-thirds votes in parliament, there's a quite broad-ranging negotiations.

And secondly, the Iraqis have preferred to hammer out a pretty extensive political program before the government formation.  So in between the elections and before, the government has announced a lot of players wanted to get things in writing before they pledged their votes in support for the presidency council and the prime minister.

Now, I'll just very quickly say that it's possible that on Sunday on party will emerge with a significantly larger bloc of votes than the others, and it will be clear where the prime minister will originate from.  And that party or person could form a relatively quick government.  But I think that is extremely unlikely.

There's two reasons why I would say that this government-formation process is likely to be as protracted as it has been in the past, and I mean not weeks, but probably months.

One is just the shift in Iraqi politics.  If you compare the political coalitions or parties from 2005 to today, you see something positive, that in fact you don't have parties that are exclusively sectarian in nature.  Instead of having one big Shi'a party, as you did in the last two elections, you have a couple of Shi'a parties.  Instead of having one Kurdish party, you have two Kurdish parties likely to garner significant votes.  And you have different Sunni entities.

So basically, we can expect that the vote is going to be spread among a great number of parties.

The second reason, and I'll be happy to talk about this more in detail if there's interest, my belief is that there's going to be a certain amount of ambiguity about the rules of the game, about how government formation will proceed.

Iraq's constitution, to make a complicated thing fairly simple, Iraq's constitution had what they called transitional provisions that actually expire on Sunday.  So they had a certain set of rules that required a certain amount of cross-community support for the government, that expire this election.

I don't think that there is widespread support among every Iraqi politician that the Iraqis are going to move to a less-complicated, you know, a process that the constitution says won't require these supermajorities, because that effectively means a loss in political leverage of the minorities, likely the Sunnis and the Kurds.

So I think that we'll have a certain amount of confusion over what the barriers should be to government formation.  And the Iraqis really have a history of distinguishing between political requirements and legal requirements.  We saw that when they voted on the status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq at the end of 2008.  That's something that said in the constitution, but people, for a variety of reasons, might say, you know, that's actually not going to be widely accepted unless the vote exceeds a higher hurdle.

So these are some of the things that I expect to see in the coming weeks.  I still think that this has the potential to be a very positive next step in Iraq's political evolution.  I think there are huge stakes for both Iraq and the United States and the region as well.  And, you know, I'd be happy to talk a little bit about what the U.S. role could and should be, if there's interest.

SCHNELLER:  Great.  Thank you so much.

Brett, I'd like to give you a chance to respond to the question as well.  And in addition, can you give us some idea of how the next Iraqi government will be different than the one right now, because I understand there are some differences after the election law was passed?

So over to you, Brett.

BRETT H. MCGURK:  Okay.  Well, first, yeah, I want to just echo what Meagan said, because these elections are, I really see them as somewhat anticlimactic.

They're setting up a negotiation.  So before you go into negotiation, you set who gets to be in the room, who's at the head of the table.  What these elections are doing are basically shaping the table for protracted negotiation that's going to take not weeks, but months, and perhaps many months.

Just one anecdote.  Of course, the two elections, which took, the first election in January, 90 days; the one we all remember from December '05, five to six months.  But even when the speaker of the parliament resigned, December of 2008, it took about four or five months just to replace him, and that was just one position.

Also, what Meghan said is the fracturing of the political coalitions is a healthy thing.  It also makes it more complicated.  And there are fewer positions to go around because of these transitional provisions which have dropped out of the constitution.  So you don't have two vice presidents, you now have a single president.  We know the Sunni Arabs would like to have that position, but the Kurds also want to hold onto it.  That's just kind of one example of what's going to be in the mix after the elections.

In terms of what this government is going to look like, I have no idea, and that's what makes it so interesting and also so challenging.  Nobody knows who's going to win.  And we're going to have to see.  Happy to talk about that in terms of the different jockeying, different groups who I think might do better or might not, how Prime Minister Maliki might fare.

But one thing that's also different about the system is, it's an open list system, so the voters are not just going to select a party, they're going to choose a party slate but also an individual.

So say for example the main Shi'a alliance which is called now the Iraqi National Alliance wins the most number of votes, they will say, we have the right to name the prime minister.  Back in 2006, they went into a party conclave and chose who would be the prime minister just based upon kind of the party leadership and the two main poles of that group, which are the Sadr group and the Hakim group. And we had a compromise candidate with Jaafari, eventually got Maliki.  That's something we don't necessarily want to remember.

But this time, you're going to kind of know who's the most popular figure, because people are going to put a check next to a name.  So it's going to be very, very interesting.

Also, given the time frames, we're not going to know really what's happened until probably three weeks or so after the elections when the votes are certified. And then that kicks off a series of steps under the constitution, there are six of them, to form the government.  And again, I think that's going to take a period of months.

Since 2005, I don't think protracted government formation is a strategic threat to the state as it was in 2005, 2006.  But the U.S. is going to have to handle it very carefully and with great humility and flexibility.  And I'm happy to get into that as well.

SCHNELLER:  Thanks so much.  So I'd like to now open it up to questions from the press.  Do we have a question on the line right now?

OPERATOR:  Okay, at this time we'll open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please press star, 2.

Our first question comes from Gary Thomas with Voice of America.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, good afternoon.  I'm just wondering what role you see that Iran is trying to insert itself into the election, particularly in the person of Chalabi and this disqualification of the Sunni candidates.  Is Iran's influence going to be felt in this election?

SCHNELLER:  Meghan, would you like to respond to that?

O'SULLIVAN:  Sure, I'll say something briefly and then give Brett a chance.

I think certainly Iran's influence will be felt, but that's not so much the critical question.  The question is or the important thing I think to distinguish between is whether Iran has influence or whether Iran is able to determine outcomes.  And I would say that Iran certainly has influence.  It's a critical neighbor.  It has a lot of close personal relationships with Iraqi officials.

But that it is not in a position to determine the outcome of this election or to determine the outcome of the government formation period.  And I think that is something that almost all Iraqis would react very badly to.  And I think Iran is probably in a weaker position than it was in previous government formations, but Brett may have a different read on that.

SCHNELLER:  Brett.

MCGURK:  Yeah.  Again, I mean, watching the way Iran has handled its Iraq file, which is handled by the Quds Force, four years ago, they were trying to create a Hezbollah-like entity within Iraq, mainly through the Jaish al Mahdi, Sadr's militia, and were having some good effects.  And so when sectarian violence broke out, you had a very well-organized, well-armed, well-funded and well-trained militia controlling vast swaths of territory.  And that was Iran's strategy.

Since then, it's been a long four years, and the Iraqis have pushed back quite tremendously against the Iranians.  This is something I like to kind of remind the other Arab states when we get questions about this.

You know, the Iranians have really pushed back against nefarious Iranian influence.  You can look at, of course, the Basra operation and when Prime Minister Maliki sent the army down to Basra to take on Sadr's militia and scored a victory, both a military victory and a negotiated victory, certainly.

You also have the issue of oil in which Iran does not want international oil companies coming in and investing in Iraq's oil sector.  That logjam has been completely broken I think in a way that surprised most observers.  There are now international oil companies under their own contractors saying, within 10 years, Iraq can be pumping as much oil a day as Saudi Arabia, which is quite extraordinary.

You've also had the security agreement which we negotiated with the Iraqis. Also, Iran was in the mix there.  They did not get the outcome that they wanted.

So what you've seen is Iraq is pushing against Iran, Iran pushing back and trying to see where they can have influence.

And just very briefly.  I think the de-Ba'athification episode, certainly Iran had a hand in that, but there's also a natural Iraqi dynamic to that, too. You know, I think Americans seem to forget the legacy of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party and the great fears which really exist among the Iraqi people, particularly in the south and in parts of Baghdad, about that historical shadow and its politics.

So is Chalabi influenced by Iran?  Probably, I agree with General Odierno.  But he's also a politician, an opportunist, and it's a wedge issue, and it's good politics.  And you saw Maliki get kind of trapped in that, because Maliki, six, seven months ago, was reaching out to Saleh al-Mutlak and to a lot of the really hardcore Sunni parties to join his list.  They didn't join him, and now he is in a fight for his political life, mainly with the Shi'a bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes Chalabi and others.

And so he kind of played into it, because it's coming from the people of Iraq.  I mean, the politicians are responding to Iraqis.  They're not taking dictates from the Iranians.

So does Iran have an influence?  Sure.  But a lot of the neighbors have an influence.  But Iraqis are doing what Iraqis are doing.  This is election is about Iraq.  And I think the Iranians certainly do not have any more influence -- I would say this, I know this is controversial -- than we do.  Our leverage is still quite dramatic.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much.

SCHNELLER:  Thanks a lot.  Let's go on to the next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Robert Burns with the Associated Press.

QUESTIONER:  Hello, I have a couple of questions for Meghan.  You said that you think it will be a matter of months before the new government is formed.  I'm wondering whether you have a sense for whether this is likely to open the door for increased violence, sectarian, insurgent or otherwise during that period.

And my second question is, do you have any feel for whether the next government, whatever it may be, is likely to want to amend the status of forces agreement, to either speed up or slow down the withdrawal of American troops?

O'SULLIVAN:  Sure, thanks for those questions.  Certainly, that is the big concern among Iraqis and among those of us who watch Iraq closely, is that if you have what turns out to be a prolonged political wrangling that that creates a political vacuum, which invites a security vacuum.  That is certainly the pattern that we saw in 2006 where you had basically the election at the end of 2005.  You had the Samara mosque bombing in February 2006.

And during this period, you had a major political drift as there was a very, very prolonged fight about who would be the prime minister and all the decisions that flowed from that.  And so you actually had a major deterioration of the security situation over that period of time.  So I think that's a very legitimate concern.

I don't think it's at all inevitable.  I think one of the things to watch closely is how Prime Minister Maliki reacts after the election.  He clearly has a responsibility to continue to govern until the next election or until the government is formed.  And so my guess is that he will take that responsibility quite seriously.  Now, this will be particularly true if there are some prospects for him to become Iraq's next prime minister, which is clearly his desire and intention.

If election results are dramatically different from what people expect and it's clear that his party is out of the running, I'd still expect that he will be a responsible statesman.  He's played a very important role in Iraqi politics, and that he would not want to be remembered as somebody who sort of fizzled out.

The real issue here is the extent to which Iraqis will be able to direct their energy and attention to anything else besides government formation.  The reality is that in the past they've found it very difficult to take on and grapple with other issues while they're having these debates about the form of the government.

They have greater institutional capacity than they did five years ago.  But certainly, no major decisions will be made.  And certainly, there will be new opportunities for groups that are looking to weaken the Iraqi government, to come in and extract violence.

I think the issue on the security front that I would be a little bit more concerned about is if in fact this government does take months to form, this is against the backdrop of the United States bringing down its troop levels.  As you know, President Obama has pledged to have all combat forces out of Iraq by the end of August.  And if you don't have an Iraqi government, say, until late spring or early summer, you know, to what extent does that jeopardize those plans?  And to what extent does that create, you know, a new or difficult political dynamic?

On the question of the SOFA, that is a fairly hard thing to assess at this point, because, as Brett said, it really is pretty fascinating that we can be having this election in Iraq in five days, and people who spend, you know, 16 hours a day thinking about Iraq are not in a position to really place any definitive bets.

So I think it depends a lot on what the next government looks like.  And it depends a lot on how the subsequent six or eight months go.

I think it's fair to say that it's certainly plausible that once you get out of this political period, you know, no one is going to be talking about amending the SOFA now.  That's not good politics in Iraq or in the United States.  But once we get through the cycle where you have American troops down to 50,000 by the end of August 2010, and then you're looking at another year in which all of those forces, with an exception of a small number, should be gone from Iraq, I think it's possible that you'll have kind of more deliberate conversation between Iraq and the United States about what their mutual interests are and whether they involve a relatively small, continued U.S. engagement, either for training or for some kind of measure that gives the Iraqis some kind of confidence about their external security.

They're feeling pretty comfortable about their ability to handle internal security threats, not perfectly, but in a way that precludes any kind of return to the violence we saw in 2006.  They aren't feeling very secure about their ability to deflect threats from their neighbors.  And certainly, we don't have any reason to believe that the Gulf is going to be, you know, a stable place over the next few years.

And they may just decide that having some sort of arrangement, which is a follow on to a SOFA, makes sense.  But I really would say, I won't expect to hear anything along those lines or anything about that within the next six to nine months.  I think it's really a conversation, if it's going to happen at all, that will start towards the end of this year.

SCHNELLER:  Thank you so much.

Brett, do you have a few words to add to that?

MCGURK:  No.  Just, the first -- on -- the violence is important to keep in mind. Again, the time frames.  The Samara mosque attack, of course, the Askari shrine happened on, I think, February 22nd, 2006, which is more than, you know, two months after the last round of national elections.  So if you are an al Qaeda thinking about how you might want to jeopardize the stability of the state, you're going to look to that play book, which is quite successful.

That's why the next few months are going to be extremely challenging.  And so I opened my comments by saying, we really need to be flexible.

We are, however, going through very steep drawdown of U.S. forces.  And General Odierno when he was here said, we might have to have a plan b just in case, you know, seeing what the situation, how it unfolds.  I think that's smart, and I think, I assume the administration does have a plan b.

However, I think we're on track for this steep slope going down to 50,000 in August.  And we're going to have to just watch it as it unfolds.  But you know, the Iraqis are watching this, too.  It gives -- I mean, I've always been a believer that actually our presence, in a smart way, gives the Iraqis confidence to broker cross-sectarian compromises.  We've seen that quite a bit in the past.  When it looks like we're heading for the exits, it makes it a lot harder.  That gets into the drawdown both in August time frame, which I think is well accepted and locked in, and it gets into the post 2011, which is really going to be debated about, as Meghan said.

Once the next government gets in, they look around, and they say, wow, here are my forces, here's my air force, what do I need, they're going to ask us, and then we'll have a conversation as two governments.  But it's far too premature right now to predict how that conversation is going to go.

SCHNELLER:  Great, thank you.

Another question, please, from the press.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Christina Bergman (sp) with DW German International.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello.  Thank you.  This is a question for Meghan.  You said in your opening statement that you would like to talk a little bit about the United States' role in Iraq after the election, so that would be my question, within the next sort of one and a half years, so towards the end of 2011, but also afterwards. Thank you.

O'SULLIVAN:  I'm sorry, just to clarify, are you looking for a projection of the long-term U.S. role, meaning after or are you concerned about the role in the coming weeks and months?

QUESTIONER:  Both, that's the question.  So if you say it's the same, fine.  But maybe you might want to make a difference.  That's why I asked you for the different time periods.

O'SULLIVAN:  Sure.  There's so much to say here.  Let me try to do this fairly succinctly.

I think the first thing to note is that the U.S. in the previous government formations has played different roles.  In the first government formation period -- and again, this is the period that I was referring to in terms of, you know, what is the role of the U.S. going to be -- in the first one, the U.S. more or less decided that it would try to be hands off, that it would try not to get involved. This is an Iraqi process.  And it was a period in time where a lot of the international community was questioning Iraq's sovereignty.

And the United States really didn't want to compromise Iraq's sovereignty, and so the U.S. really took a backseat, so much to the extent that in fact the U.S. didn't have an ambassador in Baghdad for most of this period of time.  This was in 2005.

What happened was that a government was formed.  It was able to perform its primary task, which was writing the constitution, but it had a number of undesirable qualities.  And it was over that period of time that Iraq's ministries and its security forces really got taken over by a number of sectarian dimensions and trends.

And it was later that the U.S. sort of belatedly recognized, hey, we have a real interest in the broad character of this government.  So it engaged a little bit more aggressively in the next government formation.

The question is today it's a very, very different landscape.  Brett and I both described how Iraqi politics have changed.  American leverage has changed, although I would agree with Brett that it's probably much more substantial than people like to talk about.  And the question is, what are U.S. interests in this next government?  And you know, what is an appropriate way for the U.S. to engage, which I would distinguish from intervention?  And this is an important distinction, but one that is hard to operationalize.

I would say that it's almost impossible for the U.S. not to take a position on anything.  The U.S. is an actor in Iraq.  It's not as important as many other actors.  It's not as important as the Iraqi actors.  But it is an actors.  It's a player, and Iraqis know that, and they will use comments to play off each other, comments made by the Americans.

Most recently, you saw comments made by the U.S. commander and the U.S. ambassador about Chalabi and Iran.  These comments were twisted and used as a justification for one of the Iraqi politicians to call for a boycott of the election.  So it's very difficult to say, we're just going to stand back.

And so the question is, you know, how should we engage?  How should the U.S. engage.  And I would say that history has told us to really stay away from engaging too heavily on individuals, that that is an extremely hard thing to do, that it is quite dangerous in terms of any sort of embrace by the U.S. turns out to backfire.

But there are certain questions that I hope American policymakers have thought a lot about, and I'll just highlight one, because I suspect it will come up.  And that is, should, you know, does Iraq still need a government of national unity?  The last government, that of Prime Minister Maliki, was and is a government essentially of national unity, which virtually every political party is represented in the cabinet.  This has been good in the sense that it helped.  I think it was instrumental in bringing Sunnis away from violence into the political process.

But it had some significant downsides in terms of the efficiency of decision-making and a variety of other factors.  And so the question is, if the election results work out that government can be formed, that excludes, say, it excludes the Kurdish parties, or say it excludes the Sunni parties, is that something that is going to be a sustainable, stable government for Iraq over the long run?  Because that's really the U.S. interest, that this government is going to be able to consolidate Iraq's positive trajectories.

And I think that is the question that, you know, if I were in a closed room with policymakers, I would say, has the U.S. decided, is this going to be something that it will weigh in on privately?  Or has it decided that, if it's a Shi'a-Kurd government, that's going to be okay?

You know, my view on this is that actually, until Iraq's politics are more oriented towards issues and less oriented towards identities, that it will be good to have a government that is broadly representative.  It doesn't need to be a national unity government in the sense of including all actors or elements of all political parties.  But it does need to be broadly representative of Iraq's society until their politics really continue the process of evolution that they're clearly on.

SCHNELLER:  Thank you so much.

Brett, to turn the question back to you, what do you see the U.S. role in Iraq being in the short term and then again in the long term, say, one to five years, one and a half years after the election?

MCGURK:  In the short term -- and if I was in Baghdad, I would say, we have to approach this with great humility.  The government formation process in 2006, we became, for a number of reasons, not necessarily of our choosing, but given the situation, we became an indispensable actor in that process.  And I think in doing so, when U.S. plays that role, we inject all sorts of antibodies and free radicals into an already fledgling organism.  And it's not necessarily helpful and doesn't really reverberate in our interests.

So that's just something when you're approaching Iraqi politics, generally. We have to let it play out.

I agree with Meghan, though.  We also have to have some basic principles to make sure that the process is more or less within those broad parameters and do what we can to get them back on track should they fall off.  And I don't think they will.  The dynamic itself is set up that I think the major coalitions, at least, should be represented.  But that's something to do.

How do we do that?  The one thing we have in Baghdad is convening authority. We can convene the parties.  And that is a tremendous asset.  It's also one to be used very, very sparingly.

Briefly, in the long term, we hope, and as the administration has said, that we want to have a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq.  We have invested so much.  We have suffered together, bled together.  I think we have a moral obligation to the Iraqis.  We have national security interests in seeing a stable Iraq which is a partner of ours.  And that is now in sight.

You know, we have the security agreement.  We also have the strategic framework agreement.  And the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration on Iraq has been quite smooth.  I think it's a testament to the Bush administration and President Bush and also to President Obama, who's made very good and responsible decisions on Iraq.

And as soon as the government is formed, this is going to be really the key time.  And hopefully we'll have a call when that happens, because that's really going to be important, because we're going to start discussing, what is the U.S. role in this country, going forward?

And we want to have a partnership -- education, commerce, culture, trade, economics, a diplomatic relationship and a security relationship.

So it's going to be important as soon as the government is formed to have that strategic type of dialogue.  And I think the administration will be ready to do that.

SCHNELLER:  Great, thank you.

A follow-up question?  Or should we move on to the next question?

QUESTIONER:  No, thank you very much.

SCHNELLER:  Thank you.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  And just as a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, that is the * key followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone.  And we are currently holding for questions.

SCHNELLER:  All right, well, great.  Since we have a little bit of time, I'd like to ask a question.  And I'd like to direct this at Brett.

Can you talk a little bit about the Kurds and the Kurdish parties in the elections?  Are the Kurds going to be the king-maker in these elections?  Are they going to retain one of the more important seats?  Is Jalal Talabani going to be in the picture in the next elections?  What's your view on that?

MCGURK:  Well, as Meghan in her introduction said, what also makes these elections so interesting is that the Kurdish landscape is really shaken up.  So you have the Kurdish alliance with the two major parties, one of which is led by Masoud Barzani, the other by Jalal Talabani.

But now you have this Change List, the Gouran List, which is also running, and which garnered about 25 percent in the Kurdish parliamentary elections.

Now, everybody expects that the Change List will do fairly well again, but then the Kurds will join forces in the negotiation in Baghdad.  And if that happens, the Kurds will have a bloc of, say, you know, 50 or so seats, and they will play a central role in terms of whoever the prime minister in Amedi might be of being able to form a government.

But something I said in the beginning, the key first step, who's the president going to be?  You know, the steps the constitution lays out is you have an election on the 7th, you then have the results certified in about two or three weeks.

And then the first step is the parliament convenes, and it has to name a president.  Not a presidency council this time, just one president.  So the Sunni Arabs really want that position.  The Kurds want it.  If the Change List in the north does substantially well and eats into the PUK vote, which is Talabani's vote, will Talabani be weakened?  Will the Sunni's reach out to the Gouran party and say, hey, join us, we want to have the presidency, and then you can have a key role in the cabinet?  That could well happen.

But I think, even though you have a shake up in Kurdish politics, I think at the end of the day the two main Kurdish parties will join forces and present themselves as a united bloc.

And so, in that sense, yes, they are king-makers.  I don't think a prime ministerial nominee could form a government without the Kurds.

SCHNELLER:  Great, thank you.  Can you explain why you think Gouran has been doing so well and why it will continue to do so well?

MCGURK:  Well, you know, when you're in the north, you hear, we have, you know, two parties, they kind of rule with an iron fist.  And there's a lot of corruption, like you hear anywhere else.  And so he has kind of tapped into that. I've heard him called kind of the Ross Perot of Kurdish politics.  He's kind of tapped into this stuff, saying, hey, I've got to get under the hood.  And people are saying, yeah, let's give this guy, you know, let's vote for change.  That's why it's called the change party.

And so it's kind of tapped into some general frustration.  But I think whenever two parties are in control, you know, for so long, whether or not he could actually govern effectively, that would remain to be seen.  But he's certainly tapped into a sense of unease in the north where things could be going better and that there's a lot of spoils going to ruling parties.  Whether that's fair or not, that's certainly what people think.  And I think there's some legitimacy to that, and corruption.

So he tapped into the mood.  And, you know, again, that's what makes this election very interesting and different than 2005.

SCHNELLER:  Thank you.

Do we have any more questions, or can I keep going?

OPERATOR:  We do have one question in the queue from William Murray with Energy Intelligence Group.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi.  Thanks for this event today.  This is a question for either of you.  It's interesting to look at, as I think Brett was mentioning, international oil companies moving into Iraq and signing contracts in the past year.  I was wondering what the reasoning would be, the idea that the risk profile that they view entering into Iraq and here in 2010 is actually quite low.  And so many of the companies seem to have some confidence of putting a large amount of investment.  And it does indicate a step change in security in many ways.

What is your underlying theory of why that's the case, why they feel that even now, before this election takes place, that they can really expect some long-term stability that would be willing to put up this kind of billions of dollars?

SCHNELLER:  Great.  Meghan, do we still have you with us?

O'SULLIVAN:  You still have me for a few more minutes, I think.  I'm just -- I'm waiting until I'm pulled off the phone.  I'll just give a quick answer to that.

I think part of it has to do with the location of the oil fields that have come under contract.  As I'm sure you're aware, they're primarily in the south, and they're in places which are not particularly well populated, and they're certainly largely homogeneous places.  And they're places that actually have not sustained high levels of violence, even during the worst period of Iraq's violence.

So I think if you had somebody who was really doing an in-depth security briefing for you and painted, you know, the worst-case scenario or one of the worst-case scenarios for Iraq security, you know, it bodes worse for the north in Baghdad and more mixed areas than it does for some of the areas where the fields are.

But I would say, more important than those calculations -- and really, you know, if you look at the security numbers, it's not hard to see why they're thinking the security situation should be better.  But I think the real thing driving the international oil companies is twofold.

And one is just, as you know probably as well as Brett or I, that Iraq is really the last place in the world where you're going to be able to access this much oil, this easily.  And if you are a major oil company, staying outside of Iraq is probably likely to be a significant strategic vulnerability.  So I think a lot of these companies felt that they couldn't afford to be left out of Iraq's oil industry.

And the second reason really is attached to the first.  There's just an uncertainty to what extent Iraq was going to continue to put fields up for contract.  We heard Prime Minister Maliki say just a few days ago that in fact no more fields will go to international oil companies.

And if you look at the current situation, as Brett mentioned, if these contracts actually meet their potential, Iraq will be producing more than Saudi Arabia.  You know, this will bring Iraq enormous wealth, and you can understand why any Iraqi government will be focusing on executing those contracts, on helping ensure the infrastructure for the production and export of that oil rather than inviting international companies in to develop subsequent fields.

So my sense is, there really was a feeling, a little bit of a now or never, that if you don't jump now, you may not be able to jump later.  And being out of Iraq could be a major strategic downfall.

QUESTIONER:  If I could follow up just a second.  If all this is the case, then how important is passing a petroleum law really?  Is it mandatory, or is it kind of a window dressing since they've gotten so far, so fast?

O'SULLIVAN:  I think it depends on your perspective.  It depends on who you are.  If you're an oil company, you have signed your contract under the old law, in part, because the terms of that contract have been so favorable to Iraq. They haven't really been challenged by the parliament as many people anticipated the legality of those contracts would be.

And one of the major reasons or pushes behind getting an oil law was to form the basis to bring in international oil companies.  A lot of people speculated a few years ago that international oil companies would not come into Iraq in the absence of a new law.  And so the sense was, if Iraq is going to have sufficient resources to develop and to reconstruct its society and economy, that it really needed to bring international oil companies in.  And in order to do that, it needed this law.

So on one hand, the impetus behind the law is greatly diminished.  On the other hand, in terms of what it means for Iraqi domestic politics and the overall reconciliation process, I would say it still holds enormous value, because the continuation of disagreements about the terms under which international companies can be involved in Iraq really is a symptom of the big problem in Iraq, which is the disagreement between what powers should be exercised by Baghdad and what powers should be exercised by the regions and the provinces.

And so what Iraq really would like to see happen in subsequent, you know, months and years is to get a resolution of that large issue.  And that will really help with Iraq's overall stability.

So I would say that there's still some very important reasons for that law to be pursued, even if bringing more international oil companies into Iraq is no longer one of them.

SCHNELLER:  Thanks so much.

Brett, would you care to add?

MCGURK:  No, no, that was great.

SCHNELLER:  Great, thank you so much.

Do we have more questions on the line?

OPERATOR:  At this time, there are no more questions.

SCHNELLER:  Great.  Well, I'd like to follow up with a question on the current political scene on the ground in Iraq.  There are these stories coming out that the different political parties are engaged in basically vote-buying operations, from everything to passing out frozen chickens to apparently Prime Minister Maliki's party is giving out pistols to tribal leaders.

So what's actually going on here?  Are the parties engaged in vote-buying to seal their position in the future government?  And if we still have Meghan on the line, I'd love to hear your perspective on that, or, if not, Brett.

O'SULLIVAN:  Rachel, I apologize.  I need to drop now.

SCHNELLER:  No problem.  Thank you so much for your time.

O'SULLIVAN:  Yeah.  Thanks, everyone.  I'm happy to have the chance to speak with you.

And thanks, Rachel and Brett, as well.

SCHNELLER:  Thank you.

Brett, vote-buying, what's going on?

MCGURK:  Okay.  I mean, I think, you know, they all live in glass houses, and I think there's all sorts of things going on.  Whether there's a systemic type of problem, I don't know.  I mean, we heard reports of, you know, ISCI, one of the main Shi'a parties, buying people cars before the elections and all sorts of things.  And they didn't really do very well.

What's interesting is a lot of these allegations have come out in this.  And The New York Times ran a little story on this and this nationally televised on Al Arabiya all throughout the Arab world debate series.  Almost every night, you have candidates from different parties debating.  And in one of the debates, someone brought out this pistol, claiming that the Maliki list was giving pistols to tribal leaders.  And then the other accused the other party of doing the same.  So it's come out in a sort of transparency process, which itself is quite interesting.

But you know, I don't know.  I don't have real total clarity.  I will say what, you know, the election overall, a lot of the commentary I think has kind of suggested that Maliki was this front runner and now he's somewhat damaged by the bombings and things.  I never really bought that, because if you look at the local elections in which he really, he did quite well, and that's why people are saying he's a front runner, the two main Shi'a parties, ISCI, led by the Hakim family, now Abdul Aziz's son Ammar, and the Sadrist bloc, were running separately.  And the Sadrists weren't really declared in the election.  So you had some Sadrist party, but they weren't really declared.

You now have the Hakims and the Sadrist ISCI and the Sadrists running together on the main Shi'a Iraqi National Alliance List.  And that's a real juggernaut list that's going to drive so many votes in the south.  They have the mosques.  They have the organizational network.  And whether Maliki, by his population, can beat that, that's always been a very, very open question.

That's actually what I'm really looking for.  Who comes out with the most number of votes and, therefore, has a right to name the prime minister?  Is it Maliki by his national stature and popularity?  Or is it the Iraqi National Alliance with its organizational abilities and having the two leading Shi'a parties?

So that's what's really going to be interesting.  Whether Allawi's list, which also has been talked about, can generate that number of votes, I think it's going to be very hard, because he's not going to generate the type of support in the south that you need to really drive votes.

And another problem with that is that, you know, secular moderates, whatever you might want to say, also directing a lot of their attention the Sunni Arabs, they really fractured themselves.  And this happens every single year.  The Shi'a, who literally fight each other, literally bury the hatchet to join together and try to do well in the elections.  And the other groups really fracture.

So this time you have the Allawi list, you have a list by the current minister of Interior, Bulani, he's a Shi'a independent, he's joined forces with the head of the Anbar Awakening, Abu Risha.  And then you have the largest Sunni party, the IIP, which is the outgrowth of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, also running on its own.

So all these parties are kind of going to fracture their votes.  They're all pitching themselves to the same sliver of the electorate.  And it opens the way to Maliki and to Iraqi National Alliance, the Hakim-Sadr list.

So in terms of what to look for when the results come out, who gets the most number of votes?  Is it Maliki, or is it the INA?  And we'll see.  There's a chance even that, given the fracturing, that the Kurds come out with the largest number of votes, which would be quite interesting, though I still think fairly unlikely.  But it's a real horse race.

And in no other country in that part of the world can you look and say, you know, who's going to be governing the country in six months?  But in Iraq, that's what we have right now.

SCHNELLER:  You're absolutely right.  It is a horse race.  Can you -- I'm really interested in trying to figure out why Dawa, Prime Minister Maliki's party, why it's not running along with the other Shi'a parties, such as ISCI and Sadr? Why did those parties break up when they were part of the same bloc back in 2005?

MCGURK:  Yeah, well, it's a great question.  And you know, looking at the Iraqi political scene over the last five years, there was always this notion that, you know, a main Shi'a alliance is so dominant, that it would be really great if these parties broke up, because that would allow this kind of less-identity-focused politics to develop.  But it's very hard if that's ever happened.

ISCI kind of put their toe in the water, the Sadrists did, but they always ended up coming back together.  Iran had an influence on that, Sistani had an influence on that, and also their own self-interest had an influence on that.  You know, because when they join together, they get more seats, and they get more influence.

Maliki, after he took on the Sadrists in Basra, said, I don't want to be seen as a Shi'a leader, I want to be seen as a national leader.  So what he had always said since the day he came into office, though he didn't start saying it out loud until 2008 when he was much more strengthened and kind of had come into his own.  So he said, I'm going to break from the Shi'a alliance and try to join my own nationalist list.  I think this is what the country needs.

That was an earthquake for Iraqi politics.  It was really quite something. And you had a period of about six weeks, two months where Maliki is reaching out to everybody, including Saleh al-Mutlak and other very hardline Sunni Arabs to join with him.  They chose not to, so his list is not as powerful as I think he hoped it would be.

But he is running on this national list, Iraqi first, non-sectarian message, and he thinks that that is enough to defeat the main Shi'a alliance which has been so dominant in Iraqi politics.  And again, I think that is where to look for how that race develops.  It's a race for the heart of the voters in the south, where the majority of voters are.  And that's why Maliki got tripped up in this de-Ba'ath thing, and, you know, I don't think he handled it as well as he could have.

But he handled it in a way that, I think, reflects, you know, his core constituency.  So it's going to be quite interesting.

If Maliki wins the most number of votes, he is not going to win a majority, so he's going to have to find other parties to join with him.  And one contingency is that he wins the largest number of votes here, has a right to name himself as prime minister under the constitution, but the other parties won't confirm him in an independent vote of confidence, which could really allow the government formation process to drag out for some period of months.

I think that would not be good for Iraq.  And that's kind of what happened with Jaafari last time, so we'll have to see.

But yeah, but Maliki leaving the Shi'a alliance, as you said in your question, it's a great question, it was an earthquake for Iraqi politics.  It opened things up like never before.  And now we just have to see whether he can pull it off.

SCHNELLER:  Great, thank you so much.

Do we have other callers, or can I keep bombarding poor Brett with my questions?

OPERATOR:  At this time, there are no more questions.

SCHNELLER:  Great, well, I'm going to keep you on the line for as long as I can, because it's just too interesting.

Maliki is a really interesting figure in and of himself.  You know, he was involved in a lot of interesting things with Dawa before the 2003 invasion, some people would say, even terrorism.  So what's your view on that?

MCGURK:  Yeah, I mean, I, you know, I've worked with Maliki since the day he really came into office.  And I know what he's done since he's come into office. Nobody knew him really before.  And he said early on, look, he's conspiratorial because there are conspiracies around him.  He comes from an underground movement. He fled Saddam Hussein.  So that all affects his personality.

But he said early on, I want to be, you know, a national leader, but that means I have to have security forces I can count on that aren't effectively these militias.  I have to do a number of other things.  And it was really the spring of 2008 in which that vision which he used to talk about -- and there's a question, is he right or is he wrong?  That was a famous memo from Steve Hadley that leaked just before the surge.  Is this a question of this guy's will, Maliki?  Is he a core sectarian who's allowing the Jaish al-Mahdi to sweep through Baghdad, and he's enabling this because that's what he wants to see happen?  Or is it a question of his capacity, that actually he wants to be a national leader, but he simply doesn't have the capacity; and therefore, through the surge, we want to help Iraqis develop their capacity to push back on the militias?

The bet was made that it's actually the latter, with pretty good evidence, and that proved to be the case.  Now, how has that manifested itself?  I think if you want to see how Maliki thinks -- and you know, without passing judgment, how he thinks, you look have to look at what he's done and how he acts and then how not only green zone politicians react to it but also the Iraqi people react to it.

So exhibit a of Maliki trying to be a national leader is what he did in Basra, which was really quite extraordinary, taking on the JAM and actually succeeding with a very precarious few days in which it looked like he wouldn't succeed.  So that was a major development.

And he came back to Baghdad and said, I'm going into Sadr City now, and he did, against the wishes of our own commanders, and that was a success.  And he restored some semblance of the rule of law to Sadr City.  That's exhibit a against the Shi'a.  And that brought a lot of support from Sunnis and Kurds and from the Iraqis.

And then he won the local election in Basra against the Sadrists and against ISCI.  So that is exhibit a against the Shi'a.

Secondly, against the Sunnis, he says, look, I don't care if you're a member of the Awakening, that's great; however, you're not going to still be able to run your neighborhood as a criminal syndicate.  Exhibit a there is a guy named Omar Mashhadani in a Fadhil neighborhood of Baghdad, who was a member of the Awakening. He fought al Qaeda, but he was doing all sorts of terrible things in that part of Baghdad.

And Maliki went in there with the Iraqi army in a somewhat heavy-fisted and heavy-handed way, but he arrest Omar Mashhadani.  And there was an uproar among Sunni leaders about that.  But he was popular among the Iraqis.

Exhibit C is the Kurds where the Peshmurga, the Kurdish militia, is deployed south of the green line.  Maliki says that's contrary to the constitution; and therefore, you can't be there.  So he'll talk to them.  And then at one point, he actually sent tanks up there to make his point.  That's very unpopular with the Kurds.  It's very popular, though, with the Sunni Arabs and with the Shi'a.

So those are kind of three just examples of how Maliki acts.  Now, some say that means he's trying to be a dictator, he's trying to be the next Saddam Hussein. He says -- and the Iraqi people will make a judgment on this -- he said, no, I'm actually trying to have a country that answers to the rule of law, not Lebanon which answers to different sects and allows a Hezbollah-like force on its territories.

So that's his vision.  He believes he's tapped into a winning formula that the Iraqis are going to support.  And that's why he broke away from the Shi'a kind of alliance to run on his own.  And you know, we'll have to see how it plays out.

But I think the notion that Maliki is a dictator is -- you know, given the way that Iraqi politics works, he can't exert as well through the parliaments, there's so many forces pressing against him, I think that's a bit of a stretch.  But, you know, he's trying to rule with a heavy hand, because he thinks that's what he has to do.

SCHNELLER:  Great.  To follow up on that, though, you know, the operation in Basra, I know, and also the Kurdish example that you used, you know, sending in the tanks, those were U.S. tanks, I believe.  And in Basra, there was a heavy reliance on U.S. military to actually accomplish that Charge of the Knights. So would Maliki, if he becomes prime minister again, or another prime minister be able to do the same sort of, you know, peacekeeping operations without the U.S. military?

MCGURK:  Well, first, in the north, there are Iraqi army deployments and then we ended up kind of standing in the middle.  Whether it actually ever would have come to blows is something that historians will have to decipher.  I actually don't think so.  I think he was making a show of force, and the Kurds made their own show of force.

And in the south, he sent, you know, the divisions were with the force down south, we sent a very small number of enablers, Navy SEALs and others, you know, which did help slowly turn the tide.  But then what happened down there, which Maliki said would happen, and they actually didn't believe him, was that the population down there is going to support this operation.  They're not going to support the militias.

That was a bet that he made, that we actually didn't necessarily believe. And he ended up being right.  He said, Sadr City, the same thing.  You know, Sadr City, 3 million people, 10 percent of the Iraqi population under the grip of the JAM. Maliki said, well, I'm going to go in there, because the population is going to support me.  And the Iraqi army when it goes in, again, we just said, I think that's a really high risk.  He ended up being right.  He said, I have my pulse on what's happening there.

Whether he makes the right call at the time, certainly not, but those are two examples where he was.

I think Basra is actually a pretty good example of, should Iraq ever get in that situation again, of what we can do.  We did not go down there with heavy mechanized units or anything like that.  We went down there very light, very agile, again, Navy SEALs, enablers, which helped the Iraqi military, air support, things like that.

Might we do that again?  If the Iraqis ask for it under the SOFA and we agreed, we would have the authorities to do that.  Not many U.S. military personnel are in harm's way in that type of operation, so maybe.

But you know, if you're saying that we went down there with, you know, heavy units or something, that wasn't what it took.  I mean, you know, the days of Fallujah, the days of really clearing, holding and building major Iraqi cities and neighborhoods and towns, those days are long past.  The days of very light specialized American enabling units, certainly, I think that is a model for the future.  If the Iraqis ask for it, and should we decide that it's in our interest to provide it, I think that's something we might -- might -- see again.

SCHNELLER:  Great.  Thank you so much, Brett.  This has been really a wonderful opportunity to hear your views on this.

I want to give you the last minute before we close to just make any closing comments about the upcoming elections.

MCGURK:  No, I would just close by reemphasizing our first point, that the elections are really just shaping the table for what's going to be a protracted negotiation.  And if you follow the steps in the constitution, there are even time frames built into that.  But it's going to take a period of months.

I don't think that's a strategic threat to Iraq.  I think it's something we have to be very careful and conscious of.  I think the U.S. role in this has to be nimble and flexible.  When things appear to be, you know, tiltering off course, it's going to be hardcore politics.  Iraqis who don't feel they're getting what they want are going to go to the streets and say, we're on the verge of civil war. I think we can overreact to that type of rhetoric.  It's just inherent in the Iraqi political debate.

And I think the U.S. role has to approach this with great humility, not being too much of a direct intervener, but also watching it extremely carefully and making sure the broad boundaries of what we want to see are more or less shaping up and on track.  And it's going to be -- it really is -- we've said so many times, the next six months are going to be decisive in Iraq.  These next six months are decisive.

This government, as Meghan said, is going to last until 2014, assuming you don't have a vote of no confidence.  That's outlasting the first term of President Obama, and that's well outlasting the SOFA.  So an awful lot is going to happen with this government that will be set up in the coming months.

And given all that we've invested in Iraq -- again, the Iraq story is not over.  And we really have an opportunity to end the Iraq story well, and we're kind of at the end of the beginning now.  And it's going to be, you know, it's just going to be a really decisive time and a really interesting time, too, no matter how you look at it, from the security side, from the political side, and for the regional implications.  I mean, the region is watching this as well.

SCHNELLER:  Absolutely right.

MCGURK:  So it will be an exciting few months.

SCHNELLER:  It will be.  It will be very exciting.  It's better than a "24" episode, you know.  (Laughs.)  Who's coming, and each session is more exciting than the last.

Again, for those of you who are still with us, that was Brett McGurk, international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, formerly director for Iraq and special assistant to the president, senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan at the National Security Council.

So again, thank you so much for your time and your insights.

MCGURK:  Good, thanks, Rachel.

SCHNELLER:  Thank you.

MCGURK:  Great, bye.

SCHNELLER:  All right.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  This concludes today's call.  You may now disconnect your lines.

 

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