Ambassador Hill Assesses Upcoming Iraq Elections
NEAL CONAN, host:
If Iraqis are to settle their political future in parliament instead of the streets, elections, just a few weeks from now, will be critical. No one expects the deep sectarian divisions and fundamental disagreements to be resolved anytime soon, but elections that are seen as free and fair would provide the next government with legitimacy as the United States continues troop withdrawals.
One big problem, though, earlier this year, several hundred candidates were disqualified because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Christopher Hill, the United States' ambassador to Iraq is just wrapping up a trip to Washington and he's been kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A before he heads back to Baghdad.
If you'd like to talk with the American ambassador about the upcoming elections, the political climate in Baghdad. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us:firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Christopher Hill has been in the Foreign Service for more than 30 years. Last April after serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, he was posted to Baghdad. Ambassador Hill, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ambassador CHRISTOPHER HILL (United States Ambassador to Iraq): Thank you very much.
CONAN: The elections are now set for March 7th. Are you confident they will go ahead as scheduled?
Amb. HILL: Well, we're certainly expecting the elections on March 7th. You know, the U.N. has done a lot of work on getting ready for things. There are going to be something like 18.9 million voters. We have some 300,000 poll workers there, some 50,000 polling stations. So I think people are going to be ready. But in Iraq, you know, you have the elections on one day and then you start government formation soon after that.
CONAN: And that could be a difficult process because there's so many divisions and so many parties. And well, everything seems to be along confessional lines. You're voting for a Sunni party or a Kurdish party on ethnic lines.
Amb. HILL: Well, not necessarily, because here are these major coalitions and each coalition has a different sectarian representation and that for example, the coalition that Prime Minister Maliki has something called State of Law, and he has a Sunni partner as well, and then there's a coalition called Iraqiya sort of a national coalition, which has as the head of it a very secular Shia, but a lot of Sunni in it. So it's not necessarily that.
But the real trick is, you know, in the U.S., after you have an election, you know, the party gets together and various people become various secretaries of various departments. But in Iraq, what is going to happen is no coalition will be big enough so they got to reach out to another coalition and then they got to try to form a government.
CONAN: Well, today we saw General Ray Odierno, the military commander in Iraq as saying - quoted to saying that if Iraq is unable to form a new government after this election, he has a plan B. It could involve slowing down the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq. Isn't this timetable set with the Iraqi government? Isn't it bound by treaty?
Amb. HILL: Well, actually, we are bound by something called a security agreement, which by the end of 2011 will expire, so we're supposed to have all the troops out by 2011. But what we're doing is to reduce the troops gradually. And as President Obama announced at Camp Lejeune about a year ago that by the end of August, we will have our troops down to 50,000. And most importantly, our troops will not be engaged in combat operations, instead is they'll be engaged in assisting and aiding Iraqi forces.
So we're very, very focused on doing what we can to be helpful to the Iraqis in terms of getting their government formed. You'll recall in 2005, it took some 5 1/2 months. Obviously, we' all like it to be a shorter period than that.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, has General Odierno told you about his plans or what - how much slowly would it go?
Amb. HILL: Well, we
CONAN: Who will decide?
Amb. HILL: We talk every day and several times a day and certainly we look at lot of contingencies. But we're really very much focused on saying, if we can be helpful to the Iraqis in terms of getting their - getting a new government put together in a matter of weeks and, you know, possibly months, but I mean, we will certainly work with them. And one of the key things we've got to do, of course, is to work for the caretaker government to make sure things go ahead while they're forming a new government.
So the caretaker government needs to be very much on top of security issues, they need to keep moving ahead. You know, they are a lot of economic developments in Iraq in the last few months because the Iraqis made a decision, first time in decades to bring in international oil companies to help them develop and manage their oil sector.
CONAN: We wanted to get some listeners a chance to talk with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, with us here in Studio 3A. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
And Bill's(ph) on the line calling from Adrian, Michigan.
BILL (Caller): Hi, there. Thank you for taking my call. I guess my question is about the candidates who are recently disqualified because of ties to the Baath Party. And I thought that - or from what I understood is that de-Baathification is one of the things that really has de-franchised or disenfranchised, I should say, a large portion of the former bureaucrats who help - were running the government under Iraq. And I just wonder how long these people are going to be - if they didn't commit any crimes under Saddam, why they're still being disenfranchised and B, how long are they going to be excluded from being involved in helping to rebuild their country? I mean, prosecute the people who were criminals under Saddam, but a lot these bureaucrats have experience that certainly could be used to rebuild Iraq.
CONAN: It should also be pointed out that the majority of these people are Sunnis. And one Sunni party has called for a boycott of the election saying this isn't fair.
Amb. HILL: Actually, if I can correct you. The majority of the people were actually Shia. But there are some more prominent, more senior Sunnis who were named on this list. And so, indeed, the issue has been perceived as some kind of anti-Sunni issue. But I would say, though, what the caller is suggesting is something that you often hear in Iraq. I mean, this is an issue of some deep division in Iraq with many people saying, look, this has gone far enough. We need to move on. But others saying, wait a minute, this de-Baathification needs to proceed. After all, this is in the constitution, article 7 in the constitution. This is akin to what went on in Germany after World War II so we need to move ahead with this. The problem...
BILL: Is it time to - oh. Hello?
CONAN: Let him finish - and then you can come back, Bill.
Amb. HILL: The problem with the whole process was that it came kind of late and it came, frankly, in the middle of an election campaign. So understandably, it got caught up in the politics of it and became a very big bone of contention. But you know, many countries have faced these kinds of problems. You know, if you look at what went on in Poland, they have a lustration law and they dealt with this, in South Africa they dealt with this. And obviously, Iraq needs to deal with this in a way that allows the country to move on.
CONAN: Bill, you wanted to follow up? I'm sorry.
BILL: Well, I was going to bring up South Africa. And is it time to have a truth and reconciliation committee or, I mean, obviously, I think you need to have a stable government in place to be able to do that in an effective way. But I would - I think that would be one of the things that would settle these old wounds as opposed to picking up weapons, I guess.
CONAN: Well, you had Nelson Mandela there...
BILL: Thank you.
CONAN: ...in charge in South Africa, but that was helpful in that regard.
Amb. HILL: Well, Bill, first of all, I think it's a decision the Iraqis are going to have to make themselves. So I certainly don't think they need my opinion on this. But I will tell you, it is really a very emotional and, in certain respects, a very raw issue there. And you don't get the impression from most people there that they're willing to sort of move on at this stage. Now, at some point, they will, but when they are, that's going to be something they're going to have to decide on their own and decide when the appropriate time is.
CONAN: On the exclusion of these candidates not allowed to run, how can any election be seen as legitimate? The U.S. criticized Iran bitterly when they precluded candidates from standing in the election.
Amb. HILL: Well, I mean, there is a legal precedent for this. The problem was that the process came very late. It came via a commission with members who were appointed to an old commission who were not appointed to the new commission so it really was a question of process. And we certainly raised a lot of concerns about the process, so much so you probably notice that I got some criticism myself from the Iraqi government on this.
CONAN: Criticism, I should say, from both sides on this.
Amb. HILL: Oh, yes. But you know, if you're trying to do your job as a diplomat, you ought to get criticism from both sides.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is John(ph). John with us from Charlotte.
JOHN (Caller): Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead. Go ahead, please.
JOHN: Yes, sir. Mr. Ambassador, I was a United States Marine in Iraq for the last election. And during that time, we'd provide security for the polling stations through elaborate boards and, you know, we were, to use a euphemism, we were armed for bare, you're just waiting for the worst of the worst. And I'm curious, who is going to be providing security for this election and are you anticipating or are you fearing any types of intimidation or - you know, we were waiting for armed attack.
Amb. HILL: Well, obviously, the security situation has improved a lot in Iraq. And I think anyone who served there before, if they came back today, would be very pleased that their work, their sacrifice has resulted in a safer, calmer Iraq. Now, that said, there are still a lot of problems there. And certainly, violence is ever present danger there. And certainly, we are expecting, you know, efforts at violence to disrupt the election. Now, the Iraqis are in charge of security but they are receiving considerable help from us, from the U.S. forces on security.
And, you know, recently, as you know, the - it's now the U.S. Army, rather than the Marines out in Anbar province. I was just there a couple of weeks ago meeting with the tribal sheiks, meeting with some of our troops out there. And believe me, we are ready. We - our troops are ready to assist the Iraqi forces. And the Iraqi forces have learned a lot in this process. They did pretty well in the local elections and we expect them to do well in these elections.
CONAN: John, thanks very much.
JOHN: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Are there international observers there to see that the elections are fair?
Amb. HILL: There are - the U.S. Embassy - in fact, my embassy has been standing up a lot of different teams. You know you, in addition to have teams, you have to have security with the teams. We've got teams that include observers from places in Europe, in fact, from the European Union. We have, you know, countries like Poland have sent observers - Poland, the U.K. We've got about eight or 10 countries or so, as well as U.S. observers.
CONAN: What would happen - and we only have to look to the recent example of Afghanistan to raise this possibility so it's not completely out of the blue -what would happen if those observers say, wait a minute. This election was not fair. What would the position of the United States be?
Amb. HILL: Well, obviously, you know, it's a hypothetical question. We have to deal with it. It's certainly within the range of possibilities. But you know, we're focusing on getting these elections done well. We work very closely with the U.N. The U.N., in turn, works very closely with the high commissioner of the Iraqi, high commissioner for elections. These elections - albeit, in some cases, it's been hasty because we didn't get an election law until kind of late - we have really meticulously worked with the Iraqis on this. We're expecting successful elections.
CONAN: Our guest is Ambassador Christopher Hill. He's the ambassador of the United States to Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get Eric(ph) on the line. Eric calling from Berkeley.
ERIC (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead please.
ERIC: I'd like to know, how many troops are these supposedly so-called noncombat troops, and how much money are we going to be giving to Iran, and for how long after the 2011 deadline for withdrawal - how long and how much and how many?
CONAN: And I'm sure Eric meant Iraq.
Amb. HILL: Yeah. Of course. No, we have about 100,000 troops there now. That's down from a peak amount of about 175,000. We expect that this 100,000 or so now will be cut in half by the end of August, down to about 50,000. Now, these are regular U.S. troops, but the mission will be a noncombat mission. That is they will not be involved in combat operations. So that 50,000 we expect to be, through most of the time, leading up to a point at which the security agreement - that is the legal agreement that we've reached with the Iraqis that allows us to have troops in their country until that security agreement expires. And when that security agreement expires at the end of December 2011, there should not be any U.S. troops at that time.
CONAN: Unless there's a subsequent agreement.
Amb. HILL: Unless there's a subsequent agreement, but it's something, you know, that has not been discussed on either side at this point.
CONAN: Okay. Eric, thanks very much for the call. And in terms of money for Iraqi reconstruction, that sort of thing, after that period, presumably that would continue, but that's above your pay grade?
Amb. HILL: Well, no. We're working on - we have substantial U.S. assistance budget in Iraq. We - you know, if you look at the overall outlays of what we're doing on Iraq, it's come way, way down because we're reducing the number of troops. And, you know, the operating and maintaining of U.S. troops, the price tag for that has come way down. In terms of assistance, I don't have a cheat sheet in front of me, but we're talking sort of several hundred million dollars overall in the kind of assistance programs we're doing. We're - this is really a year of transition. We're not only transitioning from the military to the civilians. We're transitioning many tasks from our military to the Iraqis. We're ending other tasks. You know, we've done elaborate planning on this, so looking at these some 1,300 tasks.
In addition to that, we're transitioning in our assistance amounts, that is going from trying to rebuild Iraq to providing capacity building that is helping their, you know, training of their ministries. We're going to continue to do training of their police and things like that. So it's still a very vast undertaking because - we're doing it because we want to develop this long-term relationship with Iraq and we intend to succeed.
CONAN: Let me ask you about the role of a person who is extremely controversial in the run-up to war, Ahmed Chalabi, who provided the United States information, which later turned out to be not exactly accurate, but supporting the case for the invasion of Iraq. He continues to have a role there, but very much now associated with Iran. Do you consider him to be - well, how close is he to Iran? Is he...
Amb. HILL: Well, I think General Odierno kind of laid it out the other day that this is a guy who is much closer to Iran. And I'm not sure if people saw that back in '03, but we sure see it now. But rather than just sort of focus on Mr. Chalabi, I think it's probably more important for us to focus on the broader elections, see how these coalitions are doing and whether they're going to have successful elections. So that's what we're really trying to keep our eye on.
CONAN: The next - an important hurdle will come with decisions about Kirkuk, the city in the north, the oil city Kurds claim as their own. And indeed, there are other minorities that say, wait a minute, our interests need to be protected here. And indeed, there are plenty of Iraqis who say, wait a minute, it's not a Kurdish city. It's an Iraqi. What's happening with Kirkuk?
Amb. HILL: You got it. Yeah, that is a tough one. That is one of some 14 or 15 features along the sort of Kurdish-Arab - I don't want to call it a fault line - but very definitely there's a dispute around 15 areas there. Kirkuk is probably the biggest. And, yes, both sides say this is a part of, you know, their patrimony and it should stay.
Now, we're talking about an internal boundary. We're not talking about an external boundary or border or something. So what has to happen is we need a negotiating process. And so, the U.N. has put together some ideas for that. And I think we're all looking forward to playing - and especially the United States - playing a very active role in seeing if we can nail this issue, really work on Kirkuk.
I can't tell you what the outcome is, but what I can tell you is there are a number of ideas. And what we'd hope is both sides can kind of - can coalesce around some of these ideas. At which point, there'd be a referendum to determine whether people agree with the ideas.
CONAN: So negotiations to set up a proposal for the future of Kirkuk and these other areas...
Amb. HILL: Yeah.
CONAN: ...and then a plebiscite?
Amb. HILL: Yeah. It depends whether they think they need one. But if they need a plebiscite, that can be done to affirm a political deal put together by politicians. But I want to tell you, these are tough issues, and they didn't just arrive last year or seven years ago; they've been around for sometime.
CONAN: Christopher Hill, I know everybody in the audience wishes you good luck, see if you can work some of these out.
Amb. HILL: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And thank you very much for your time today.
Ambassador Christopher Hill joined us here in Studio 3A. He's on his way back to Baghdad. Safe travels.
Tomorrow, Amy Bishop, a professor at the University of Alabama faces charges in the shooting of several colleagues on the campus there. We'll look at efforts to try to predict violent behaviors. Be with us then.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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