CORRECTION: This column has been edited to correct statements made by Neil Arun as part of the "Global Journalist" radio show.
Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The 130,000 troops in Iraq are mostly on stand down, confined to bases since the Iraqi military took over monitoring security almost six weeks ago. Last month, seven American soldiers were killed, the fewest since the war started six years ago. Does that mean the new policy is working well? Last week, a memo by Army Col. Timothy Reese argued that it was time for the U.S. to declare victory in Iraq and pull all of its troops out within the next year. Present plans call for complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011. Bring us up to date with the war in Iraq, how the turnover of military operations to the Iraqi army is working, and can we look forward perhaps to early withdrawals?
Liz Sly, correspondent, Los Angeles Times, Baghdad: The troops really have been out of the center of the cities since June 30. This is a little bit of a surprise to the American forces. Immediately before the handover, troops were telling me, no you’ll still be seeing us on the streets of Baghdad. That hasn’t happened. The Iraqis have not called on the troops. They have intensified their operations in rural areas, mainly because there isn’t anything to do. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did raise the question of bringing the troops home early when he was in Baghdad, about a week ago. General (Raymond T.) Odierno, commander of the U.S. forces here, has made it clear that he doesn’t agree. We’re not on track, at the moment, for any early withdrawals.
Loory: What about the Kurd versus Iraqi Arab situation? Is that developing into a more serious confrontation than Shia versus Sunni?
Neil Arun, Iraqi editor, Institute of War & Peace Reporting, Erbil, Iraq: That was Gates’ opinion when he was here and others at the moment. He called it the biggest long-term threat to Iraq’s stability. The Shia-Sunni conflict has not died down, but it is better than it was. The Kurdish-Arab conflict is much older and is deadlocked over some very strong issues, such as the status of Kirkuk, an oil-producing region in the north.
Loory: What is the feeling at the Pentagon?
Gordon Lubold, Pentagon correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Washington: While Gates was in Iraq making those comments, these concerns about security in the north sprung up. Any possible acceleration drawdown may make sense through this year, driven by the need for more troops in Afghanistan. Part of this debate about when to leave Iraq is driven by the large number of stuff that is there. They are trying to figure out how many trucks, tents, everything, can be left there, sold or given to the Iraqis or brought back.
Loory: Is our Army large enough these days?
Lubold: That is a huge question here. Gates also announced about three weeks ago a temporary increase in the Army of about 22,000 soldiers to get through this rough spot of getting out of Iraq and into Afghanistan.
Loory: What is the attitude throughout the Middle East about how the Americans are doing in Iraq and what they have accomplished or not accomplished?
Michael Bluhm, political analyst, The Daily Star, Beirut: We are all asking what is going to happen once the number of troops begins to significantly decline. This will probably set the tone for what is going to happen in the region. In recent years, Iraq is something like a mirror of the major equation in the region, which has headed the U.S. and its allies against Iran and its enemies. When Iraq was at the nadir in 2005-07, there was also violence in Lebanon, and Israelis and Palestinians were squaring off. Depending on how this standoff turns out between the U.S. and Iran, we are going to see this reflection again in what happens in Iraq.
Loory: The attitude of the Bush administration was that it was building a democracy in Iraq. How does that go down in the Arab world?
Bluhm: A lot of people put it in the same category with the search for weapons for mass destruction; they thought it was a cover for a U.S. plan for hegemony in the region. The Bush administration also trumpeted the so-called “revolution” in Lebanon as an example of the spread of democracy. A lot of that talk has died down as reality has set in; for the U.S. to achieve its aims in Iraq, it must work closely with autocrats like those in Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Loory: How is building a democracy in Iraq viewed these days there?
Sly: It is viewed with a great deal of cynicism. Many Iraqis say they would have preferred to have no democracy than go through the trauma of civil war. Key national elections are coming up in January. They will be a big test of whether the system works or not. Everything that is happening in Iraq on the political scene is being done while calculating how it will play in the national elections. All sides of the Arab-Kurd dispute are not prepared to make any concessions ahead of those elections out of the fear of alienating their constituencies.
Loory: Would any kind of democratic government be able to control the ethnic and religious differences in the country?
Sly: It is democratic in the sense that people vote for it, but politics have ended up since the invasion being structured with a sectarian, ethno-based political system, and many people blame the Americans for this. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a Shiite who is reaching out to Sunnis in the hope of forming what he calls a broad coalition for the election. Some people see it as the beginning of the end of sectarianism. The Kurds see it as a potential revival of Arab nationalism in Iraq.
Loory: What about Iraq’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf area?
Bluhm: It is sort of a mad grab for power. The Iranians have been distracted since their elections, but they were trying to reassert their influence in Iraq over the past years. They successfully see a Shiite majority government leading the country. Meanwhile, the Sunni minority feels persecuted and is finding a resonance with the Saudis and other countries in the Gulf. At the same time, the Kurdish issue really threatens Iraq’s relations with Turkey. It might threaten Turkey’s emerging status as something of a mediator in the Arab world and with the West.
Loory: What might the Kurds do to support the Kurdish minority in Turkey?
Arun: The Kurds, officially, are not doing anything. However, the Kurdish government has given Turkey tacit permission to *pursue those Kurdish rebels in a rugged mountainous border area. On the streets, there is a great deal of sympathy for the rebels among Kurds.
Loory: What will be the situation with other bases throughout the Middle East and central Asia after the U.S. withdraws from Iraq?
Lubold: Everywhere the U.S. has gone in any big way, it stayed there for years afterward. Some of those bases clearly are going to shrink and won’t be as necessary, but the idea that the American military is going to be going away from Iraq after 2011 seems a little bit unlikely.
Loory: Will they remain in Iraq as a force to contend with Iran?
Lubold: There was always this sense that the U.S. would establish Iraq as a great base for whatever it may do in Iran, mostly under the previous administration. There is talk now of dealing with Iran at a different level. Some of the saber rattle against Iran has been tamped down quite a bit.
Loory: What might the forthcoming elections in Iraq do for the push for more autonomy by the Kurdish part of the country?
Arun: A lot of the politicking is on hold until those elections. What the Kurds really want above anything else is a government in Baghdad that is going to honor the constitution that was agreed on a few years ago and *that envisages a federal structure for Iraq.
Loory: Is the standard of living for the Iraqi people better now that the hostilities are dying down?
Sly: No, if anything the dying down of hostilities has only magnified how dismal life is here for most people. We have less electricity than the past summer and less running water. There is a terrible drought that is causing huge water problems; the economy has taken a hit from the falling oil prices. At least it is a calmer summer than it used to be.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George, Brian Jarvis and Liz Lance. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.