Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism: In his State of the Union message last week, President Barack Obama emphasized that the United States would have all of its combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August. He said, “Make no mistake, this war is ending and all of our troops are coming home.” Even as he was talking, the insurgency seemed to be building in Iraq. Days after the speech, a suicide bomber, her explosives strapped under her long dress, blew herself up in a tent meant to search women in a procession of Shiite pilgrims. She killed 41 and injured over 100 more. It was one of several such incidents in the past few days. And meanwhile, the Iraqi government was having trouble planning for next month’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been trying to ban some 500 candidates because they had ties to opposition parties and supposedly to the Ba’ath Party of former President Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Supreme Court said he could not do that, but it left open the possibility that it would act to oust members elected to the Parliament after the vote. This is not the kind of news that makes me think the war is ending. There is some history as well as the current situation, including the testimony by Tony Blair at the Chilcot Commission investigating the run up to the war in Iraq. Tell us a little bit about that, and how Tony Blair acquitted himself in that testimony.
Toby Helm, political editor, The Observer; London: It was a very eagerly awaited appearance. It was a very tense moment. Blair’s attitude to this hearing was to take a very strong line which was totally unapologetic. He gave very little ground on any mistakes that had been made. Basically he took the view: I did what I thought was right.
Loory: Tell us a little bit about the current situation in Iraq. Am I wrong to be pessimistic about what is happening now and what the future portends?
Jane Arraf, bureau chief, Christian Science Monitor; Baghdad: When things are so unsettled, it is a little difficult to predict whether what we’re seeing is a blip. What we haven’t seen here is that level of violence that basically has this country ripping itself apart over the past two years. We’ve got huge, high profile attacks but not the daily level of violence that we had a year ago. The backdrop is a very uncertain political situation.
Loory: American troops are pretty well confined to their bases and not active in the big cities any longer in maintaining security. Are the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi police beginning to do the job properly?
Arraf: Gen. Raymond Odierno maintains that they are not confined to their bases. The difference is that they are out with rules that they didn’t have to adhere to before. This is an Iraqi show, and the Iraqi security forces are in charge. Overall, you do see a lot more joint operations. Combat troops are leaving the country essentially as soon as they can after the elections. We’re talking about at least six weeks to eight weeks after when the government is being formed. Even more so than now, they’re expecting attacks, they’re expecting things to be even more unsettled and even more crucial after the elections.
Loory: Is this government going to be easily formed, and how is the Iraqi Supreme Court going to get involved?
Arraf: Nothing here is easy. Prime Minister al-Maliki has become quite popular with the security measures he implemented. His popularity has been waning a little since August when the bombing started on government ministries. We’re not really going to know what kind of government is going to be formed until they see who gets the most votes.
Loory: Tell us a little more about the situation in Kurdistan. Is it stabilizing?
Neil Arun, Iraq editor, Institute for War and Peace Reporting; Erbil, Iraq: Kurdistan has been militarily stable for quite a long time. It is dominated by two proxies that still maintain a great deal of popular support. The region is largely autonomous from Baghdad as well. However, politically, it is a different thing. You see the emergence of a very vocal opposition movement. It is in many ways a reaction to the domination of these two parties.
Loory: Chidi Emmanuel of The Kuwait Times told us that there has been a lessening of tension in the Gulf area as a result of what has been happening in Iraq. Do the American Embassy officials and officials in the American military understand this and feel that this is some justification for what has happened in the last seven years?
Arraf: As Chidi mentioned, Kuwait has a very unique perspective. Iraq invaded Kuwait, so they do have a different point of view. What a lot of people believe is that rather than reducing tension in the region, what the U.S. invasion has done is really let loose on a whole host of factors: increased Iranian influence, the possibility of a very weak government, possibly even a dysfunctional state.
Loory: Is the Obama administration and the Republican opposition in Washington coming to a good understanding of the situation in Iraq?
Anna Gawel, managing editor, The Washington Diplomat; Silver Spring, Md.: In Washington, there has been the single-minded focus on the withdrawal because the attention has been consumed by Afghanistan, Pakistan and more recently Yemen, as well as ongoing concerns about Iran. I don’t think that should come as a complete surprise because Obama made it clear during the campaign that he would shift the focus away from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he has consistently followed through on that pledge. I think he has most Republicans on board with him. A lot of the dates for leaving combat forces are still flexible. They’re still going to be based on conditions on the ground.
Loory: Let’s talk a little bit about the future. There may not be a complete pull out of all combat troops by the end of August, and there may not be the complete withdrawal of all American troops by the end of 2011.
Arraf: That is a politically sensitive issue. The bottom line really is everyone here, senior officials — Iraqi and American — expect some sort of continuing U.S. presence after 2011. The expectation is there will be a residual presence which would require limited security agreements signed between the United States and Iraq and for combat troops.
Loory: We haven’t talked about the infrastructure in Iraq, the shortage of electricity, the lack of potable water and the comeback of the petroleum industry in Iraq. What is happening as far as the economy here is concerned?
Arraf: The economy is largely based on vast oil reserves. It is still a pretty risky place to do business, not only so much in security but also in terms of political unrest. Iraqis are probably not going to see the benefit of that for quite a few years. The economy itself suffers quite a lot from the fact that this is a government that really doesn’t have a lot of capacity.
Loory: Does that mean that the United States is going to be spending money for the long-term future in Iraq?
Arraf: That depends whether there is money to spend. There is increasing unwillingness to spend more money in Iraq. But certainly there is a fear here that as this war fades from view, people will think we don’t have to do anything else in Iraq. That is really not the case. This is a crucial time, and it does take money — not so much for the combat troops but for the reconstruction, for developing Iraqi capacity, for all of those things that will help make a stable country.
Loory: The Iraq War is now the second most expensive war that the United States has ever fought, second only to World War II. More money has been spent in Iraq than in the Vietnam War. How has the administration been able to keep attention off of that fact?
Gawel: After 9/11, you’ve been seeing defense budgets really ballooning. Given the huge amount of resources and the troops on the ground, much of this funding is a necessity, so the public is not questioning it. But as bad economic times continue, eventually the attention will start turning towards these enormous defense budgets. When it comes to defense spending, it is very difficult given how many defense contracts and how many members of Congress are involved in the defense industry. It is very difficult to cut the spending.
Loory: What we heard today is that Iraq still presents a confused picture.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.