Benchmarks for Iraq Deemed Divisive

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President Bush has repeatedly stressed that U.S. commitment to Iraq is contingent on the Iraqi government meeting certain benchmarks. Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director of the International Crisis Group, says benchmarks cause divisions. Hiltermann spoke with John Ydstie.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

To learn more about the Iraqi government's progress on political benchmarks, we reached Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Good morning.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Middle East Project Director, International Crisis Group): Good morning.

YDSTIE: President Bush and the Congress have repeatedly stressed that U.S. strategy in Iraq is contingent on the Iraqi government meeting certain benchmarks. What's your view on whether the Iraqi government has made progress?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Well, so far there's been very, very little progress. Provincial elections have not yet been scheduled. Debathification reversal has become stuck, essentially, and the constitutional review has made progress, but is stuck now on the key questions that divide the Kurds from other Iraqis.

YDSTIE: Why is there so little progress on these three issues?

Mr. HILTERMANN: The main reason is that basically the governing Kurdish and Shiite Islamist parties are being asked to give away some of their power to the minority Sunni Arabs following the January 2005 elections, where the Sunnis stayed away and lost out on real participation in the new government. And the majority is not really willing to give up anything to people that they accuse of terrorism. And they're under no real pressure to give up anything.

YDSTIE: Iraqi lawmakers have been working on another major benchmark; that is passing legislation that would regulate the country's oil industry and determine how the oil wealth ought to be distributed. Now, they are making some progress there, right?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Yeah. On that issue there is progress, and it's also the most important one, maybe the least difficult one of the lot. But progress has been achieved in the sense that some parts of that overall framework oil and gas law have been approved. Other parts are still under intense negotiation. But you could see progress there over the next couple of months.

YDSTIE: Do you think these benchmarks are actually getting in the way of the debate over U.S. policy in Iraq?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Well, this is certainly the argument that American Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Baghdad now is making. There is something to that. I think it is very important to come to a basic agreement over the oil revenues. But it is very important to fill the vacuum that has been created by the removal of the regime and its security branches and that the United States until now has not been able to fill.

YDSTIE: Ambassador Crocker has suggested measuring improvements as basic as electricity production or oil production. Are those important and useful, do you think?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Well, for the Iraqi people these are critical and they were critical from day one after April 2003. I remembered being there, and this was the first thing people are complaining about - the absence of electricity, the shortage of electricity, the total absence of law and order in the streets and the, you know, fact that people didn't have jobs.

And these issues have only been aggravated in the past three years, four years. And so if a government wants to show that it is capable of governing Iraq, it would start providing these essential services to people, they might actually get some support.

YDSTIE: Are you concerned that American politics is now going to speed forward and require the withdrawal of American troops on a relatively rapid basis?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Yeah, that is a concern I have. You know, I was against the war. But now I am against a precipitous withdrawal of American forces. This may sound contradictory, but I think it's utterly consistent with the fact that the arrival of American forces creates a huge security vacuum. And you have to fill it lest the country and the region descend into chaos.

YDSTIE: Joost Hiltermann is the author of "A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja." He joined us from our New York Bureau. Thank you very much.

Mr. HILTERMANN: Thank you.

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