Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: There are still more than 130,000 troops from the U.S. in Iraq, but on Tuesday their mission changed. They were no longer patrolling major cities to keep the peace. Instead, all responsibility for that had been turned over to Iraqi forces; American soldiers may venture out on patrols only when invited by Iraqis. If everything works out, all American combat operations will end in about a year, and all American forces will be gone by the end of 2011, according to a security agreement signed between Iraq and the U.S. last April. Three powerful opposition groups issued statements on Wednesday, saying they would continue to fight Americans, but they did not think it was proper to kill Iraqis. With Americans mostly confined to their bases, does that mean some semblance of law and order might really be at hand?
Alissa Rubin, Baghdad bureau chief, The New York Times, Baghdad, Iraq: It is certainly encouraging they said that; it remains to be seen if it is actually carried out. There are more than a dozen groups active here, and not all signed on. In a sense, this was the insurgency weighing in with their point of view, which was consistent, to get the Americans out. It was important because they made a public commitment to not kill any Iraqi security forces, which had borne the insurgent’s wrath in the last few years.
Loory: American combat troops have only been withdrawn from activity in the major cities. Does that mean they are still active in the countryside?
Roman Zagros, Iraq editor, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Sulaimaniya, Iraq: They have been withdrawn into the remote areas. Most of the combat operations over the past few years have been in little townships and villages. If there are major military operations and air cover is needed, then Americans will definitely chip in.
Loory: How has it been going since June 30?
Zagros: The U.S. withdrawal in this sense started much earlier; Iraqi forces have been given the leading image in many Iraqi news reports and U.S. statements. The transition will be smoother than many have thought. Iraqi forces are controlling all of the checkpoints in Baghdad, for several months now. American armored vehicles traveling through Baghdad will not be seen anymore.
Rubin: They will still be here in large numbers for at least another year. Operations didn’t end in the outlying areas, where there might be insurgent hide-outs. They will be patrolling and fortifying the borders and training the Iraqis, but it seems unlikely that is all they will be doing.
Loory: What does the Pentagon say about that?
Robert Burns, national security correspondent, Associated Press, Washington, D.C.: General [Raymond T.] Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, said recently that attention to the border areas would be a focus; another will be on the areas around Baghdad and other major cities where the insurgents have developed ways of maintaining their freedom of movement.
Loory: General Odierno has been very visible recently. How much of this is a public relations offensive?
Burns: The extra effort to get the word out from a number of American figures has been aimed at bolstering the prime minister, to reinforce that he has things under control and that the Iraqi public can have confidence.
Loory: Does Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki really have control? How much influence and authority comes from the American embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad?
Rubin: Less and less comes from the embassy. The troops have leverage because they have firepower and weaponry that the Iraqis sometimes need. Maliki has quite a bit of control, but Iraq is a large country with poor communications still, so divisions in Kirkuk or in the South are to an extent on their own. Some people would argue he has too much control. There is an enormous fear of a return to dictatorship, a terrifying idea for people who lived through the Saddam Hussein era. Maliki has been aggregating power by trying to consolidate the armed forces and creating some special security forces.
Loory: What is the feeling in Turkey about whether or not Iraq can achieve a democratic government?
Barcin Yinanc, managing editor, Hurriyet Daily News, Istanbul, Turkey: It will take long years; the priority for the Turkish people is first to create some stability in the country and to keep it as a whole. Northern Iraq is always an important priority, it is an adjacent region to Turkey where the Kurdistan People’s Party—seen as a terrorist organization by Turkey—can find haven. That is why the pullout of American forces from the cities is carefully monitored for the consequences it will have in Northern Iraq.
Loory: How difficult is it going to be for the Iraqi government to make meaningful progress?
Rubin: Very difficult; there has not yet been a real decision about sharing power among the different groups. Iraq will struggle the most in this area and it will produce violence periodically. They don’t have an oil law yet, and they have not revisited the Constitution to work on clauses that were problematic and meant to be only temporary at the time. Those frictions are still there.
Loory: There was talk of breaking up Iraq into three autonomous regions. That appears to have died out. Is it possible that something like that could be brought up again?
Zagros: The question remains subject to debate, especially when the country falls apart along ethnic and religious lines. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden suggested it to Congress and later, just before he took office with Obama, said he never meant for it to really happen. I believe it could be good; with a Kurdish north and a Sunni center, which at the moment is extremely difficult to deal with. The boundaries between Shia and Sunni are not that clear. Baghdad, which used to be a major hub for the Sunnis during Saddam, is not anymore. Most of the Shias who fled in the past have all returned and are centered in Baghdad. Samarra is a Sunni town, but at the center are two big Shia shrines that were bombed in 2006. How could a Sunni/Shia split be made, even if a clear-cut Kurdish region could be made?
Yinanc: Splitting up Iraq into three wouldn’t be in the interest of the American administration or the region. If there were a big Shiite entity, there is a likelihood that it might come under the influence of Iran. The whole Arab world would be wary of such a development. Having an independent Kurdish entity in the North would make Turkey very uneasy and would strain its relationships with the U.S. In the middle would be an Arab entity that will become a competition ground between different Arab forces; between the fundamentalists and secularists, etc.
Loory: There is talk that Biden is going to become the Administration’s point man in Iraq. Does that seem likely, and what impact might that have on future policies for Iraq?
Burns: That is the intention, but what it means has not been defined. Some in Washington feel that with the increased focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq is not being paid enough attention. Some point to the fact that Christopher Hill was made the ambassador in Iraq, a very experienced diplomat but one without any experience in the Middle East compared to his predecessor, Ryan Crocker, who was an Arab speaker and a very experienced Middle East man. Biden could be a response to these rumblings.
Loory: How does the failure to agree on an oil law impact the economy of Iraq?
Yinanc: The different ethnic sides are having trouble agreeing on the oil law; especially in the north, which is one of the richest regions. The Kurds would like to maintain Kirkuk. The central government does not want to leave that city to the Kurds because they would not have a share of the revenues. But, there is great potential because Europe is getting more energy hungry and is looking for diversification because it is too dependent on Russia. Iraq could provide this alternative to Europe.
Loory Afterword: An important issue not covered in this broadcast is the impact of the attempt to bring democracy to Iraq will have on other Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. There are several possibilities and not all of them are good.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.