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Political and Security Developments in Iraq and the Region [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense, Council on Foreign Relations, and Vali R. Nasr, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Major General William L. Nash, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention, Council on Foreign Relations
June 12, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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BILL NASH: Well, good afternoon, everybody. This is Bill Nash from the Council on Foreign Relations. (Phrase in Arabic) to all of you to join us for our conference call today on the record with Stephen Biddle, senior for defense here at the Council, and also Vali Nasr, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies.

The two of them just got back from a trip to Iraq. As the advance sheet indicated, they got quite a tour. They were hosted by General Dave Petraeus, but had the ability to kind of set their own schedule and did many things outside of the official program. So we look forward to their comments.

We're going to start with Steve, who's going to discuss overall the security situation. Vali will then give a overview of the political circumstances, and then we'll get into your questions.

And with that, again, welcome. And Steve, let's go to work.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Okay. Well, I'll be fairly telegraphic about this, just in the interest of time. But obviously I'm happy to follow up in Q and A.

Since about the middle of 2007, I think the key military dynamic in the country has been a change in the war's underlying strategic calculus, resulting largely from a series of mistakes by our enemies, but facilitated by some astute policy choices on our part, the key result of which has been to give all of the major combatants in Iraq a strategic self-interest in standing down in a series of negotiated cease-fires.

And as of November 2007 when I was last in the country, that process of negotiated cease-fire resolution had resulted in most of the western and central parts of the country essentially being under a negotiated peace. And that's largely why the violence dropped to the degree that it did, is because the combatants that had been killing us had decided instead to stand down and observe cease-fires.

The result of that has been that increasingly -- and I think it will accelerate in the next year or two if we continue to be fortunate -- the U.S.mission has started to shift from counterinsurgency as we traditionally understand it into increasingly something that looks like peacekeeping, rather than war-fighting.

We've ended up acting as the police force to maintain and police the terms of the cease-fire deals that the individual combatants had (observed ?).

I think the key things that have changed since November are twofold. The first is as of November there had been a series of either unresolved problems or holdout havens where the surviving residual of al Qaeda in Iraq and the remaining secular Sunni insurgent groups had holed up, especially in Mosul, and a series of issues in the south where underlying differences of interest hadn't been resolved among Shi'ite militia groups. There was something of a Mafioso truce-holding in that they all thought their interests were better served by profiting from flows of money within the south rather than going to war with their Shi'ite ethnic rivals, or Shi'ite sectarian rivals. Those two were both in the not-yet-solved category in November.

As a result of a series of major offensives, some planned and some not, those two situations are substantially closer to a resolution now than they were, and through a combination of good fortune and some astute policy, I think they're mostly looking pretty promising at the moment.

The second big change since November has been a big change in the capability of Iraqi security forces, which has had a variety of happy consequences in making it easier to conduct these offenses. It also, however, raises a bunch of new issues that I don't think the command has fully wrestled to the ground yet with respect to some of the downstream implications of an increasingly independent Iraqi military force and what that could mean for U.S. policy and U.S. interests in the conflict.

But I think what that means in the aggregate is, looking forward, I think this trend toward less and less of what we traditionally conceive of as counterinsurgency activity and more and more of what we might think of as being closer to a peacekeeping role is like to continue until and unless we get a serious problem with cease-fires collapsing.

And I think the key challenge looking forward is doing what has to be done to maintain the stability of the cease-fire system that's brought the violence down so far.

And with that, I'll stop and hand off to Vali, I think.

NASH: Okay, great. Thank you very much, Steve.

Vali, as you transition the series of cease-fire agreements, the issue politically seems to me to be one that the agreements are in large part with the American military forces, as opposed to with the Iraqi government. And I think that political circumstance is the one that's most interesting and most challenging as we face.

Your comments, sir.

VALI NASR: That's very true. I think they are building on what Stephen said, is that what we're seeing in Iraq is as the consequence of these series of cease-fires, that Iraq is moving to a stage from being somewhat of a failed state to a fragile state; that there is now sufficient amount of room to think about state building and building political bases for the state.

But I think it's very important (that ?) the United States is sort of in the middle of this. The gains in Iraq have by no means made it easier to find a way for the U.S.to extricate itself fromIraq.

I think a lot of what is positive in Iraq now depends greatly on U.S. involvement. And in fact what probably my impression was that the successes mean that the U.S. mission in Iraq has to evolve much more now from security, which we still have to be very vigilant with, to much state building.

So we noticed a lot more U.S. government is involved in giving micro-finance loans, garbage collection, finding jobs for people, getting involved in job training programs. In many ways, the idea of sort of dealing with security has moved to the idea of how do you get the Iraqi state up and running?

The second concerns on the horizon, one is that many of the gains that we've made depend on these Sons of Iraq, which are these neighborhood tribal elements that have picked up arms in alliance with the U.S. to provide security. As you mentioned, they have no real relationship with the Iraqi government. Iraqi security forces do not want to employ them, and there is a problem of how do you manage them.

There's some 100,000 of them there. Iraqi government wants them reduced to around 57,000. There is now -- (inaudible) -- but there is actually an increasing demand from young Iraqis who want to join these awakening groups and Sons of Iraq. And I see this as a problem because this is now an expanding demand in a folding industry. As Iraqi security forces become stronger, there will be less need for expanding the Sons of Iraq, and the question is how will theU.S. deal with this down the road.

The other problem is the nature of the Iraqi government. The good news is that Maliki has shown signs of strength, of decisiveness inBasra operations. He's somewhat popular now with Iraqis who like the idea of a strong leader in him.

But the Iraqi government by and large is still pretty much dysfunctional and very much dependent on the United States. There is a breakdown in relations between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the provincial authorities, governors, municipal authorities, and the like.

 And based on my impressions and talking with a lot of Iraqi politicians in Baghdad is that even within the ruling coalition, largely Shi'a ruling coalition, there are now deep divisions around three things.

One is the upcoming elections in October. You're seeing a lot of flurry of activity, not just among the Sunnis, but among the Shi'as. And the evidence shows that the large Shi'a parties, rather than having consolidated power, are actually losing power to a whole host of new parties that are emerging on the scene in Basra, Najaf, Baghdad, to challenge ISCI and Da'wa.

There is a lot of division within the ranks of the Shi'as over Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement and what to do with it and how to proceed with it, whether or not they should go for the kill against the Sadr movement or try to absorb them or let them have a niche in the political process. And it's not known whether the Sadrists will actually participate in the election.

And I think the biggest sort of dark cloud on the horizon (rapidly ?) -- about which there is a lot of division within the Iraqi government is this issue of status of forces agreement -- that now you sense that there is a nationalist reaction to this that is gripping even members of the ruling coalition people around Maliki himself. There is resistance to this, and now increasingly again they are looking to (Najaf ?) and particularly Ayatollah Sistani

 to give direction as to how they should proceed.

This general problem I think still with the Iraqi government is a concern because a lot of what the U.S. is trying to do in Iraqpast the series of cease-fires depends on effective governance in Baghdad. And that is difficult right now to see happening within the time frame that will really matter, which is within the next six months to 12 months.

And Ill stop with that note and then we can follow up.

NASH: Well, thank you very much, Vali. And I told you all in the pre-call that I wasn't going to ask a question here. But you've got me worked up on a couple of things, so I do want to follow up with both of you.

Vali, would you -- I want to go back to this long-term security arrangement with the United Statesand the status of forces agreement. Is the resistance to it and some of the nationalism that's coming out, is it primarily a Shi'a issue, or do the Sunni and Kurd factions also have reservations?

And Steve, following Vali's answer, could you talk about how the American military is viewing this controversy and what we might consider as very important issues from the American side in our negotiations?

Vali?

NASR: Well, I didn't talk to any sort of leading Kurdish politicians so I could have first-hand knowledge of where they're going. But talking to a lot of people in the government themselves and particularly among the Shi'a, the problem is that even before the Maliki government gets to try to cobble together a broad Shi'a-Sunni-Kurdish support for SOFA, he already has difficulty within his own alliance to get them aligned behind this.

Ayatollah Sistani has told them that one of the conditions for the SOFA must be unanimity between Iraqi political parties and approval by the Iraqi parliament, which would require Maliki to build a consensus with the Sunnis and the Kurds over this issue.

But he hasn't even begun there yet. Right now, the main battle is that elements within ISCI and elements within his own Da'wa party believe that the agreements are taking away too much of Iraqi sovereignty, that this looks like -- too much like Iraq of 1930s when the British, they claim, gave Iraq sovereignty and then took it away in a series of treaties. And there's also a lot of pressure and public relations expenditure coming from Iran, trying to undermine the government's position within their Shi'a party.

But the issue that the Shi'as are confronting are somewhat different from the Sunnis and the Kurds. They Kurds, for instance, do not have objections to permanent bases, particularly in the Kurdish areas. They see that as a benefit. The Sunnis are right now much more open to a U.S.presence in Iraq.

The Shi'as are much more divided about the issue of bases, about Iraq being used as a base of operations against Iran, about unlimited access by the United States to airspace in Iraq. But I found that all groups are in agreement about some of the issues like giving the private contractors immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law or issues that very clearly infringe on Iraqi sovereignty.

NASH: Okay, thank you.

Steve?

BIDDLE: Yeah, let me just start by saying I agree with Vali on those points strongly.

As far as the military per se is concerned, there are a couple of issues bound up in all this that are obviously pretty important to the way we conduct the war, especially things like authority to detain Iraqi citizens.

There are some degrees of freedom with respect to what happens to them after they're detained. But if U.S. forces conduct a raid, for example, or try to clear a neighborhood in which an insurgent group or an AQI cell is holed up, they don't want to be restricted to arresting only people for whom they have warrants or other constraints in advance of that kind.

They feel this is still enough like war to require war-like legal conditions for killing and detaining, though obviously they're very concerned about retaining the ability to detain citizens on the basis of what they see necessary in the course of operations.

The issue of bases and basing has also taken on a somewhat different tenor with the change in U.S.mission that occurred in 2007. We do not predominantly operate from large fixed bases out in the middle of the desert anymore. Most U.S. ground force activity is in small formations, often closely integrated with Iraqi forces.

And what that does, it produces a basing structure that doesn't lend itself to this sort of -- does the United States want X number of permanent bases in Iraq or not, kind of conversation that typically takes place in the course of the SOFA and the strategic framework agreement negotiations.

A lot of our basing at the moment is physical but austere and widely distributed joint security stations and combat outposts which are very large in number and are typically not strictly U.S.

So making sure that we have the ability to continue to integrate what we do with the Iraqis which is necessary for a variety of reasons beyond just the question of increasing the proficiency of their units. It's also important in policing the sectarianism of the behavior of those units. Keeping that possible and fluid is important as this thing goes forward.

NASH: I understand, but we still have a significant base at Baqubah and as well as one down near Nasiriyah, don't we?

BIDDLE: Well, we have quite a number of large fixed bases --

NASH: Yeah.

BIDDLE: -- it's just they tend to serve a different function than they did in 2005 and 2006. They tend to be things like logistics hubs.

NASH: Well, that's right, but they do have the potential for transitioning back to operational hubs for out-of-Iraq operations if necessary, don't they?

BIDDLE: They could serve that role, and obviously the Iraqis are concerned that they could serve that role.

What we don't want to do though is ending up going back into a force posture that looks like that of 2005 and 2006 where we have a small number of large bases to which we are restricted.

NASH: Okay. All right, good. Well, thanks very much to the two of you. We're off to a good start. Let me turn it over to the operator who now will control the questions being asked. He'll identify everybody.

We're going to leave the microphone on for those of you who ask a question during the answer to your question so if there's a quick follow-up we can accept it. Otherwise we're going to move on so everybody gets a chance.

Operator?

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 one key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order they are received.

And our first question comes from James Kitfield from National Journal Magazine.

QUESTIONER: Hi, gentlemen. I appreciate taking my question.

We're looking at a presidential election where the candidates are drawing very clear lines between their positions on Iraq. McCain's saying he hopes we can be out by 2013, but only under conditions of basically victory. Obama's saying we should be able to be out 16 months after he takes office.

If I take what you're saying about the progress that's been made, is the gap between those two positions maybe less than people think?

BIDDLE: Well, I think it could be. The standard assumption on the part of a lot of people who've advocated quick withdrawals starts from the premise that this war is essentially lost or unwinnable or our objectives can't be achieved any longer, and therefore we need to cut our losses.

If in fact the trend continues and things remain relatively stable, that provides an opportunity for a drawdown on a different logic -- a reduction in forces from a stable Iraq, as opposed to cutting our losses in a failing effort.

And in particular if you think about this in terms of the transition from counterinsurgency into something that looks like peacekeeping -- and we have the world's expert on this question moderating our conversation today, in fact -- the heavy peacekeeping deployments we started with in the Balkans were subsequently drawn down to much lower levels as those initial heavy deployments changed people's expectations and changed the pattern of behavior and belief on the part of the people living in the area and the former combatants.

You could imagine a process like that taking place in Iraq, in which case either a McCain or an Obama might see an opportunity in the form of a stable situation to draw down the size and density of the troops that are involved in policing what would amount to a nationwide system of cease-fires.

QUESTIONER: Okay.

NASH: Yeah, and I agree with Steve. The issue at hand, of course, is whether or not the conditions of peace are institutionalized to the point that the drawdown that we saw in the Balkans can be repeated inIraq.

Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Kyle (Creighton ?) at The New York Times.

QUESTIONER: Hi, gentlemen. I was wondering if you could talk a moment a little off what you've been talking about about the role ofIran as you saw it there. Obviously the administration has complained about them training militias in violent methods and things. And I'm curious about what you found there and what you think Iran's long-term strategy now is in Iraq.

NASH: Vali, why don't you take that one?

NASR: Well, they're definitely -- Iran's role in Iraqis still multifaceted. It still is working with the Iraqi government and has relations with the dominant parties Da'wa and ISCI, but it also has deep ties with elements in the Mahdi Army and there's evidence that it has also developed much more proficient groups -- the so-called special groups -- and actually the terminology special groups comes from Mahdi Army itself rather that something that was concocted on the outside.

Now, the -- given the Basra operations and the -- what happened in Sadr City it's an open question as to what happened to these special groups and elements of the Mahdi Army. Most observers on the ground believe that they made a tactical withdrawal -- they have either gone to Iranor have gone to other cities like Amarah or further north and are going to prepare for a confrontation on another day. I think the Iranians are still, you know, have the same policy objectives that they had before which is to maintain unity among the Shi'a to the extent they can -- to help them keep hold of power in Baghdad and also try to reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq and not just -- (inaudible) -- of U.S. withdrawal -- more important the issue of permanent U.S. bases and the potential for Iraq being used as a staging operation against Iran. And I think the Iranians still would like to give theUnited States a symbolic humiliating defeat or to bog the U.S. down in Iraq in a manner that would deter the U.S. from acting against Iranitself.

The question that was interesting is whether Iran actually -- (inaudible) -- of this at this point in time and I have my doubts that they can -- they are able to both deal with the Mahdi Army in the manner that they have, promoting violence in militias and using them as an instrument of power and yet be engaged with the Iraqi government at the level that they had been previously -- that the -- and I also believe that the Basra and Sadr City operations took the Iranians by surprise and forced them to have to readjust. They did incur both symbolically and in real terms a setback in those operations.

But I think one other issue -- and Stephen touched on this earlier -- is the issue of the Iraqi army and the role that it played. I think on that issue the Iranians probably maybe potentially like the Kuwaitis, the Saudis may look at the rise of an Iraqi army with somewhat worried or somewhat jaded expression. It's -- I think nobody in the region was quite prepared for the sudden emergence of Iraqi military the way it did in Basra and Sadr City -- not just the force in the security arena but also as a force in Iraqi politics. I mean, the popularity of the Iraqi army in Basra, in Baghdad -- you know, when we drove through Baghdad there was a lot of graffiti on the walls praising the Iraqi army in Kazimiyah, in areas that traditionally that shouldn't be the case. Now, that doesn't mean that the Iraqi army is ready to go, you know, on its own --

QUESTIONER: Right.

NASR: -- but, you know, it's now become a factor in Iraqi politics and I think that's something that would be a concern and the Iranians will have to adjust their policy in Iraq accordingly. But I think, you know, (that Iran?) is still there. It's still trying to maintain its position. It's reacting to everything that Stephen mentioned in terms of the series of cease fires. I think the Iranians are trying to regroup pursuant to the developments in Basra and in Sadr City.

I think the Iranian game plan now is actually to find a way to contain the trend that we are seeing and I think there the emphasis on SOFA agreement and trying to find a way to provide a toehold for the Sadr movement and for Muqtada al-Sadr to make a political comeback and also to divert attention from tensions within the ranks of the Shi'as and divert attention from special groups and Mahdi Army onto the United States would be very fruitful for them, and I think they probably would see the SOFA agreement as a nationalistic issue around which they could rally Iraqis against the United States and that would be something that would be advantageous to them.

QUESTIONER: Right. Right. That's very interesting. Okay. Thank you.

NASH: Okay. Thank you, Vali. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Robert Powell at the Economist Intelligent (sic).

QUESTIONER: Hi, there. My question -- excuse me -- regarded theU.S. choice of partners in Iraq within the government with local elections approaching. I've often watched with some concern that the U.S. at least within the Shi'a are siding with ISCI and - or SCIRI as they were and Da'wa, and these two parties now have -- you know, disintegrating at least in (three parts now ?) and Ibrahim al-Jafari was expelled last week and ISCI doesn't seem to have a huge amount of support on the ground. And if theU.S. is looking for some kind of internal political solution it's going to be difficult if the parties in the government -- at least the Shi'a parties -- don't have a particularly large measure of public support. I was wondering if perhaps maybe Vali could comment on that.

NASR: Well, you're absolutely right. I mean, we're seeing sort of a contradictory or cross -- crisscrossing sort of signals here. One is that probably ISCI or SCIRI will do well in the elections in Basra. They have done -- they did well in the past. There are too many candidates. That's why they lost the governorship. They may very well win Basra. In fact, the battle in Basra may be between Da'wa and ISCI. ISCI probably will hold its turf in Najaf and Karbalabut in other Iraqi cities in the south and in Baghdadit is vulnerable to both the Sadrists if they decide to participate in elections as well as to a host of smaller parties that are emerging to challenge it. Some are tribal based. Others are sort of independents that are emerging.

And that is a problem, namely after two, three years of being in government instead of the larger parties becoming more dominant and consolidating power and consolidating constituencies we are seeing something like 500 parties have prepared themselves for these elections and many of them in the south that you're going to have a much more chaotic municipal authority in which you will have independents and small parties maybe gaining ground and that would make management -- that would make probably Iraqi government even more dysfunctional than it is today. And right now that is exactly why something like SOFA is so beneficial to these political parties because it diverts attention away from corruption and governance issues onto a nationalistic issue that might allow them to actually circumvent this grass roots challenge to the larger parties.

QUESTIONER: And so as a quick follow-up -- so you see Fadila will lose its control of the governorship in Basra?

NASR: That is the expectation -- it's not a given. But Fadila won last time because ISCI ran two governor -- gubernatorial candidates so he benefited from that. Now, Fadila has not governedBasra well at all and there is a groundswell of support -- and Stephen can speak to this as well -- we witnessed in Basra in all sorts of forms for the government and for having cleared out the city and having got rid of the thugs and the criminals. There's obviously a lot of expectation that the government's not going to deliver reconstruction toBasra in quick order. If it doesn't by October we may have a different scene.

But right now Fadila is not enjoying popularity in Basra. It's Maliki that is enjoying that popularity but Maliki does not have a political base to win Basra. ISCI does have that political base as a partner in government to claim some of the credit and he also has infrastructure in place and to challenge in the election. But, you know, if the government fails to deliver on reconstruction -- if issues of governance are overshadowed by SOFA then you might have a different play. But right now Fadila did not appear to me at least to be in a good position to win.

NASH: Okay. Thank you.

BIDDLE: Interesting political moment for Maliki in that sense in that the kind of nationalist downtrodden base for the Sadrist trend is to a degree that it hasn't been recently up for grabs and Maliki has nationalist credentials now as a result of this sense that he's a strong leader at the head of a new national army that has real capability. If Maliki can deliver services in the wake of the military offenses he's conducted you could imagine him building for himself a political base that he hasn't previously had. Whether he can do that or not is in part dependent on the ability of his own ministries to deliver on the ground in the neighborhoods and it's so far not been particularly adept at that. But there's a possibility here that there hasn't been in a while for realignment in that sense.

NASH: Okay. Thank you, Steve. Next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Linda Robinson at U.S. News.

NASH: Hello, Linda.

QUESTIONER: Hi, how are all of you? I have a quick question for each of you if I may impose. First, I would like to ask Steve to what degree do you think brinksmanship is playing into the negotiations on the SOFA because, of course, you have -- the Iraqi government said numerous times it still needs and wants U.S. help, and we've seen the kind of behavior, I think, in some previous incidents. The political question I have for Vali is if it's not too early to begin handicapping the '09 parliamentary elections how much do you think frustration over incompetence, corruption, sectarianism with the government is going to hurt the Shi'a ruling coalition which, of course, is kind of fractured already?

NASH: Okay. Steve?

BIDDLE: Yeah, I mean, I do think there's a lot of brinksmanship going on here. I think you're exactly right on that. The trouble is you can sometimes fall off the brink. Most of the Iraqi leadership I think recognizes that although the ISF has come a long way they cannot yet stand on their own and they really do need a sizeableU.S. presence. The trouble is the kind of playing to the street that they're doing right now for tactical advantage makes it very, very hard for them at the end of the day to -- increasingly hard for them at the end of the day to accept the compromises they're going to need to accept in order to have a continued legal basis for the U.S. to be there.

Now, there's been a lot of talk of retreating to a one-year extension of the UNSCR, for example, in the event that the SOFA and the SFA don't come to be. All that does though is transfer the current debate over the SOFA into a debate over the terms of a new UNSCR. I think brinksmanship is a lot of what's going on but I'm concerned that it could end up setting up a self-defeating prophecy. The way they're playing it prior to reaching the brink is going to make walking back from the brink a lot harder when they reach it.

NASH: And just to be clear, UNSCR is the U.N. Security Council Resolution?

BIDDLE: Yes.

NASH: Okay. They really got you doing the acronyms there, Steve.

BIDDLE: Sorry about that.

NASH: Okay. Vali?

NASR: Right, and I -- actually I agree with Steve's point. I think, you know, there is a perception -- at least some Iraqi politicians I talk to the assumption was that the Bush administration is going to be desperate for that and the longer they wait the more they're going to probably get from the U.S. But also on a realistic level many of them argued that, you know, the Iranian pressure -- the fear of the street -- is very real. Maliki is very worried that he may end up signing on to an -- (inaudible) -- then others can blame the compromises on him and he's going to lose everything that he's gained in recent events, and also a number of Shi'a politicians told me that it's really up to Sistani to sink or save this agreement -- that if he says no in the end doesn't matter -- it's not going to happen.

And so some of it is brinksmanship but I think there are some real political pressures there. About the issues you raised, I think you're absolutely right. The -- this government in my opinion is -- has had a momentary gain and a momentary sort of enthusiasm generated by a strong show of force in Basra but it's showing a great deal of dysfunctionality in actually doing any state building. The government right now has allotted $100 million for reconstruction of Basra. The governor in Basra doesn't want the money. The minister of justice who have been appointed to disperse the money has neither the capacity nor the will to do it, and the only things you see on the ground are the things that the British or the Americans did -- hiring people to collect the garbage or providing micro grants, et cetera.

So looking forward it's very easy to see that this government is going to continue to fail in delivering fundamental social services and provide real state building which means that you can look at our presence there increasingly trying to fill the gaps that the government has left -- not just peacekeeping, but literally trying to handhold the flow of money from the government to the provinces, doing the kinds of things that often, you know, the World Bank or the UNDP are better adept at doing. I mean, the idea of the military managing micro grant and micro finance programs inIraq is sort of getting out of the traditional zone of missions associated with the military.

Now -- (inaudible) -- 2000 the parliamentary elections will depend on the October elections if the October elections actually happen, and if they are successful and they show a path for fundamental political questions that can be the guide to the parliamentary elections those elections will happen. If the -- if violence breaks out -- if the outcome of -- if the elections in 2008 don't happen -- if the outcome of 2009 elections are muddled in a very negative way it is really open to question whether there actually will be parliamentary elections next year and, you know, I think that's still an open question. I think there is still -- despite all of the sort of tangible gains that we are seeing in Iraq there's tremendous amount of fragility that all of this still can fall apart not because of the U.S. security strategy but because the U.S. security strategy is greatly dependent on a Iraqi state that it is still fundamentally troubled.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Great. Thanks.

NASH: Okay. Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Jonathan Tepperman from Newsweek.

QUESTIONER: Hi, gentlemen. Thanks for taking my question. I'd like to ask about the extent of U.S.military and political planning as far as you are able to determine it, and I guess part of the answer can be how transparent you found this process to be. I'm curious whether you have a sense that the military has sort of a concrete and agreed upon plan three months, six months, nine months, a year out to make the kind of transition that you are recommending from war fighting to peacekeeping and from war fighting to state building -- the -- you know, the overall and under arching point being do we have a plan to capitalize on the gains that we've made.

BIDDLE: Well, I think this change to peacekeeping is happening without a plan in most cases. I think what's been happening is that brigade commanders in particular parts of the country where they're overseeing cease fires -- where Sons of Iraq groups have stood up -- where Mahdi Army groups have stood or has stood down find themselves in the event of a violation of a contract being the people called upon to take action and they've done it, and they're becoming in many cases quite creative actually at finding ways to create disincentives to contract violations and to punish those who violate the terms. But they're just kind of doing this because it creates a stimulus for action (and they're responding ?).

There has not to my knowledge been a formal statement of policy that the mission is changing and in the following direction. Now, we've got a change of command coming. General Austin has already taken over at Corps, General Odierno will be taking over at Force soon, and I suspect that one of the things that will happen when that change of command is complete is a fairly thoroughgoing scrub of the current campaign plan and a reassessment of the situation on the ground and the direction we should take.

At the moment, my sense is that the kind of actual concrete planning that's going on is much more tactical in nature. As brigades get pulled out how do we redispose the remaining forces? Do we put them in concentrated locations or do we continue to distribute them among the Iraqis, and so on? This kind of reassessment of the mission I think is going to happen but I don't sense that it's very far along at this point.

QUESTIONER: And any sense of what's happening in the White House and the Pentagon?

BIDDLE: I would frankly be surprised if a great deal of this kind of planning was going on in the White House given what a short time they have remaining.

NASH: Vali, before you add on there I just wanted to kind of expand a question a little bit, and Steve talked about the military planning adjustments or the lack thereof. What about the wholeU.S. government effort? What did you -- did you get a sensing on the embassy and the civil military coordination within the American government for what's happening now and in the future in Iraq?

NASR: I mean, at the -- particularly at the political level I don't think there is any planning and I think that's one of the, if you would, danger points, namely many of the things that even -- issues like Sons of Iraq, like state building, like getting involved in reconstruction -- these are done as they come along without, you know, much thought given to what it might mean politically or how -- what kind of other challenges they may present to you.

Well, it's a good indication that we've invested heavily in the Sons of Iraq, a program without really thinking about how you will fold it out when you don't need them anymore. What will you do with them politically? What are you going to do with young men that now have a job expectation as security guards but there is no career path for them? And what will happen to them when the United States tries to reduce its footprint and there is no relationship between them and the Iraqi government itself?

And I think the SOFA is a very good indicator on how little planning politically has happened at the State Department level in managing it. In other words, the SOFA is running into trouble I think because largely there was not much thought given to the political implications it might have in Iraq. There was no thought given to how will you market this toIraq's neighbors, you know, from Turkey to Arab countries to even Iran, and how would you even market SOFA to the American people.

So, you know, so we're in the middle of a negotiation which is going to be extremely significant in the future of Iraqi politics without even much discussion or planning going forward, and I think, you know, a lot of things have also worked on the ground largely because you've had a great deal of synergy between the military side and the diplomatic side under Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, and it's an open question to whether this synergy would continue even after one or both of them leave Iraq and you have new people in place. And I think that's -- I wasn't reassured by sort of long-run thinking about implications -- the political implications of decisions that are being made now.

NASH: Thank you. You have to understand, Vali, we've only been there five years. Okay. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Jim Moody at Merrill Lynch.

QUESTIONER: Yes, thank you. This is, again, somewhat in the symbolic arena such as SOFA is partly in the symbolic arena. But is it correct that the American embassy is a huge -- it even outsizes our embassies in Paris, London, Rome, et cetera and that -- what is the symbolism? Is anyone inIraq complaining that we look like we're setting up shop for a long, long time in a very big way?

NASH: Vali?

NASR: Well, you know, I mean, nobody complains. I think Iraqis for now are sort of now got used to it. I think partly you do sense that people have got used to the large American presence. But there is no doubt that, you know, we have a very huge footprint inBaghdad in particular. The U.S. military presence is still very dominant. The U.S. has now taken measures to sort of get out of the way -- you know, less on the highways, less disruptive to transportation, less disruptive to commerce -- and all of that has had very beneficial results in Tikrit and in Salahuddin area, et cetera. It's helped economic revival. But yes, symbolically the U.S. has an enormous footprint. We're occupying large palaces with a lot of personnel and, you know, SOFA in many ways does not address that issue directly but that's not something that's going to change anytime soon.

QUESTIONER: Uh-huh. Can I follow up? What about -- what about this -- the Blackwater issue? What's the symbolism -- what's the play of symbolism on the -- these non-U.S. military security forces and some of the obviously overkill actions they've taken? Is that being talked about? Is that being -- is that a PR problem for us back -- at that -- at this point?

NASR: Well, the only -- I can only speak to conversations I had. That only surfaced as an issue within the context of SOFA.

QUESTIONER: Uh-huh.

NASR: That -- you know, that obviously was a immediate area of resistance that these kinds of groups cannot be covered under any kind of immunity for American personnel in Iraq.

NASH: Steve, how about commenting on the overall question to include theU.S. military view of the Blackwaters of the world?

BIDDLE: The military's view of the Blackwaters of the world tended to be extremely negative, just as a cultural matter. American national soldiers and contractors, especially in combat roles, mix like oil and water. Culturally, the U.S. military holds as perhaps its highest single value selfless service. They do not see themselves as paid employees having been hired to go wage a state's wars for it. They see themselves as people making personal sacrifices on behalf of a grateful nation.

When you take that self-conception and then you compare it with something like Blackwater, who clearly are doing this or at least certainly are widely perceived as doing this for the money, it creates a tremendous amount of resentment especially when they're doing it for a lot more money than the people in uniform are doing it for. So there's no love lost that I've been able to detect between the military and Blackwater. Nonetheless, they recognize that they're stretched so thin that a certain amount of this activity is just plain necessary but they coordinate with them very badly, they tend to resent and dislike the activity and the cooperation tends to be strained at best as a result.

Let me throw in one other observation on the issue of the embassy as well, and I think Ryan Crocker made this point originally -- that it's important when you think about the symbolism of the embassy to think about the symbolism of our current embassy. TheU.S. embassy in Iraq today sits in the former central palace of the Ba'athist government under Saddam Hussein. We are occupying the seat of power of the previous autocrat.

So you can look at this new embassy that we're building not very far away and say, oh, my gosh, it's so big -- how could this not be perceived as anything other than, you know, permanent imperium by the United States in Iraq. On the other hand, it gets us out of the Saddamist Ba'athist palace and allows us to hand that facility over to the Iraqi government and allow them to use it in some manner that they find appropriate. So the symbolism of embassy location and structure is, I think, more complicated than it's sometimes perceived to be.

NASH: Thank you, Steve. Next question. We have 10 minutes left.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Marcela Gaviria from PBS Frontline.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks so much for taking the question. I'm curious to know if Sadr is perceived as being weak or strong and what role he might have in October, and also whether he'll stick to his cease fire.

NASR: At least my impression was that his leadership within the Sadr movement is under fire. There are -- there have been Sadrists who have complained that he's (in the wrong ?) -- that he does not give very clear direction to the movement. In particular, during the Basra and Sadr City operations he was asked questions by his representatives in Iraq about the course of action that the Sadrists should take and he was cryptic, at times dismissive, and he has created a lot of disdain within the organization.

Now, a lot of it depends also on whether or not he agrees to participate in the elections in October and then what kind of a showing the Sadr groups would have. But right now there is an effort by Maliki, by other Shi'a groups to try to use the defeats in Sadr City and Basra to take over some of his followers. There's even an effort by the senior clerics in Najaf -- the marjaiyah as they're known -- and Sistani to also make encroachments into the Sadr movement. Given that the hold of the Mahdi Army over Sadr City and Basra is broken it is much more possible to preach in mosques -- (inaudible) -- and try to -- (inaudible) -- people away from Muqtada. But it's too early to know to what extent any of these efforts are successful and the frustrations that surround his management of the Basra and Sadr City operations will actually damage him.

NASH: Okay. Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Michael Goodwin at New York Daily News.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. My question has to do with the discussion continued yesterday in Germany that President Bush is planning according to some a strike on Iran and that's a hot topic, of course, in the Israeli press, and did you have any sense from your trip that that's being talked about in Iraq and what the American military thinks of that?

NASH: Steve, you want to lead off?

BIDDLE: Well, I -- the short answer is no, I didn't hear any possibility mentioned. I didn't hear anyone talking about it. I didn't get any sense that there was any planning of that kind going on. If anything, the only time I heard that discussed was several Sons of Iraq leaders that talked with us would very much like to see us invade Iran. Several of them in fact volunteered to accompany us.

But I didn't see anyone with an American passport talking about that idea and my sense in general is that the U.S. military has a very healthy awareness of just how stretched they are and just how difficult it would be to take on another enemy at this point. So I didn't detect any salivating on the part of any American officers inIraq or the possibility of taking on a new enemy just now.

NASH: Vali, do you have anything to add?

NASR: Well, I would say actually I heard sort of very clear statements that they would not like this to happen and that it would make their life in Iraqmuch more complicated. I did not detect in any way that the U.S. military in Iraq -- any appetite to try to deal with a more complicated situation than the one that they are right now confronting.

And I think they were very satisfied with the fact that they have made tangible gains against Iran in Iraq -- in Basra, in Sadr City -- and that they think that that's working in Iraq -- that they have now maybe the advantage against Iran on the ground in Iraq and they would not like to sort of jeopardize success in Iraq with, you know, shifting the focus to Iran and sacrificing Iraq policy for Iran policy, and I heard at least on one or two occasions senior officers say that they would not like to see that happen.

NASH: Okay. Great. Thank you. Let's go to our next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Karen DeYoung at Washington Post.

NASH: Hello, Karen.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I have two questions actually. One is about the reports yesterday and today of the U.S. military handing out weapons to civilians -- Shi'ites -- in Sadr City and what this says about the much touted extent of control of the Iraqi military and police force in Sadr City that we've been told has gained control of the area, and what it says psychologically about the extent to which, again, the U.S. military is in charge of what's going on there more than the Iraqi military is.

And secondarily, on the SOFA I wondered if you saw any sign of the U.S. military significantly scaling back its needs as they've been objected to by the Iraqis in terms of unilateral military actions and detentions or whether you think it's possible that they'll actually get what they want and what's being negotiated now is a way of papering that over so it becomes more politically palatable in Iraq.

NASH: Okay. Thank you. Steve, you want to start or --

BIDDLE: Yeah. On the situation in Sadr City I saw those reports as well and thought it was quite interesting. I think -- the handing out of weapons is in some ways, I think, the less interesting part of it though. First of all, it's an exception to a force wide policy. The standing order throughoutIraq for coalition forces is they are not to transfer arms or ammunition to SOI groups. This was an exception that appears to have been made locally because of a very unusual situation. The people who wanted to serve didn't have their own AK-47s.

QUESTIONER: Or at least said they didn't.

BIDDLE: Or at least said they didn't. But either way the fact that we were arming them strikes me as unusual and idiosyncratic. The larger phenomenon, though, which I think is at the heart of your question is that the way we've tended to get stability where we've gotten it is that the former insurgents themselves have agreed to deals in which they stand down and they observe certain conditions and in exchange they're recognized as legitimate providers of security. That had not been the situation in Sadr City and one of the results of that was you had a situation where lots of essentially defeated but presumably very alienated former JAM militia were still there watching what was happening and probably looking for an opportunity to rectify the situation by force.

An application of -- (inaudible) -- sorry? An application of the logic of the SOI movement to the situation in Sadr City would be legitimize the former combatants in a contractual negotiated framework such that it requires them in order to obtain the benefits and the reintegration into society that they want to observe terms that compel them to stand down and stay in cease fire. The fact that that's spreading now into Sadr City strikes me as potentially quite promising because I think that's the mechanism that brought down violence in most of the rest of the country. Whether we transfer AK-47s to a handful of them are not -- is, I think, less interesting.

QUESTIONER: Let me just follow up though. Don't we still get ourselves more deeply into a situation where we're resolving what is essentially a huge unemployment problem by making people into security forces in a way that doesn't have a lot of long-term prospects to it?

BIDDLE: Potentially, but I tend to see this not so much as a jobs program and more as a negotiated end to a war. I think the central issue here has not been people just needed work so they would, you know, lay IEDs or they would fire mortars or rockets at the Americans or at the -- (inaudible). That was part of what was going on but the underlying issue was a situation in which an important body of combatants thought it to be in their military interests to wage war.

I think what you see changing in Sadr City now is for a variety of underlying structural military reasons created by the Sunni stand down a year ago the principal Shi'ite militias and especially the JAM have seen their interests shift, and what's required now is action by an authority -- the U.S. if it has to be, the government of Iraq would be better -- to take advantage of this change in the perception of self-interest on the part of key elements of the JAM and enable them to stand down in a contractual framework. If that requires us to cut checks for $300 a person a month for the next 10 years, personally I would find that the best bargain inU.S. taxpayer expenditure in the last 10 years.

Clearly, it would be better and it may be necessary if the GOI doesn't become more welcoming of this movement but it would at a minimum be better to transition these people into some form of more systematic sustainable employment ideally as the local police -- as the IP component of the Iraqi security force. I mean, security is needed at an unusually high level in a country as unstable and violent as Iraq is now.

But if we can't get that I think it's a second best solution that's worth tolerating for a long time if necessary as the political development of Iraqproceeds to go ahead and pay those salaries. But again, I don't think this is so much first and foremost a jobs program as it is first and foremost a response to a change in perceived strategic self-interest by the leaders of those militias.

NASH: Okay. Thank you, Steve. Vali --

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible.)

NASH: No, I know we hadn't gotten to all your questions but I'm going to try to let Vali wrap it up here because we're past our time.

NASR: I was just going to say that I agree with everything Steve said. In Sadr City there's one other element here which is the government of Iraq-- Maliki has every incentive to try to at least co-opt an element of JAM into a -- into his own political base. So in -- whereas in western Iraq he didn't have a political party at the center that was interested to build a base of support among SOIs here the Iraqi the government clearly has that incentive and probably will more likely accept integrating them into the police force, and it will have political dividends for Maliki to do so.

NASH: Okay. Well, thank you very much. We have come to the bewitching hour so I want to take this opportunity to thank everybody for joining us today and special thanks, of course, to both Stephen and Vali for taking on this endeavor -- not only our conference call but, of course, traveling to and making their assessments in Iraq. Thanks to all of you and good afternoon.

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