What The Iraqi Elections Mean For The U.S.

Sunday's elections were just the second national elections held since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and a major benchmark for the U.S. plans to withdraw troops.

Still, Iraq's pressing problems like security, corruption and the status of Kirkuk persist.

Guests:

Quil Lawrence, Baghdad bureau chief for NPR

John Nagl, president, Center for a New American Security

Megan O'Sullivan, professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Mortar and rocket fire erupted even before polling stations opened yesterday, yet Iraqis still lined up to vote. Though turnout is down from the elections in 2005, it's estimated that more than 60 percent of eligible voters took part. These were just the second national elections held since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a major test for the Iraqi forces that were in charge of security yesterday, and an important benchmark in the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

But while this was a big hurdle, it's just one in a very long series, which include security, corruption, economic development and the status of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, problems unlikely to stand still in the months it may take to form a new government.

In a moment, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, on what's ahead for the government in Baghdad. Then a bit later, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl and former Deputy National Security Advisor Meghan O'Sullivan on what yesterday's elections mean for U.S. troops and U.S. security and U.S. policy.

If you have questions about the way ahead in Iraq, join the conversation. We'd especially like to hear from those of you with experience there. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Farhad Manjoo joins us on the Opinion Page to talk about how once-comprehensible machines evolved into unfathomable devices operated by software - yes, our cars.

But first, the stakes in Iraq. And we begin in Baghdad with NPR bureau chief Quil Lawrence, and Quil, thanks very much for being with us. We know you had a very long day yesterday.

QUIL LAWRENCE: No, it's my pleasure.

CONAN: And so one day after the elections, what's the mood there in Baghdad?

LAWRENCE: Well, there's a lot of speculation going on. It was a very quiet day today, especially compared to yesterday. As you said, there were so many explosions, and I should just take a second. There is some controversy about what those booms were that we heard around the city.

We they sounded a lot like mortars and rockets, and when we went to investigate, we found that there were a lot of explosions. It's not clear that there were mortars fired.

The U.S. military is insisting that there was not a single mortar fired, that 80 percent of the explosions yesterday were what they called noise bombs, these small quantities of explosives that were set up apparently just to intimidate.

Judging by the low number of casualties yesterday, that might be true. We still haven't been able to confirm exactly whether these were mortars and rockets fired or were just these probably 100 of these tiny, little bombs that were placed with remote timers and detonators.

CONAN: It's interesting, Quil, because mortars, as you know very well, mortars have a very distinctive sound.

LAWRENCE: Well, yeah, they make a small boom when they launch, and they make a loud boom when they land, and you can count the time sort of to measure the distance. And that's a lot that's what we thought we were hearing yesterday morning on the roof, starting from about 7:00 until 9:00 very intensely, sometimes one a minute.

And then throughout the day, we kept on hearing these booms echo throughout the city. A couple of them were buildings that came down, and those are also very interesting circumstances because I spent about an hour outside one of these yesterday in the neighborhood of Oor(ph) in east Baghdad. A building had collapsed. There were a few families inside. There was one woman still alive, and Iraqi rescue workers worked for hours cutting through rebar and clearing rubble. It looked like an earthquake scene. They did finally take a woman out of there alive.

But we're not sure what could've caused that explosion. There was no sign of a car bomb or a rocket having landed. It might have been explosives inside the building. They say it was an abandoned building where people were squatting, and it might actually have been a bomb-maker inside, but we just don't know yet.

CONAN: All right, we do have turnout estimates, and those are impressive. Again, down a little bit from 2005 but nevertheless impressive. When can we expect results?

LAWRENCE: We're hoping for the first certified preliminary results within a couple of days. There were tens of thousands of polling stations. About 12 million Iraqis went to the polls. We do have that certified figure of 62 percent of the voting population went out to vote.

All of these ballots were in sealed boxes that were coming back over land to Baghdad. The U.S. military was helping bring them back, and theyre being counted now here at the High Commission for Elections in Iraq.

What they have certified so far is the turnout, which as you said, was pretty healthy. We're hoping for preliminary results in a couple of days, but party observers were at each of these polling stations, and one of the rules is that to actually to prevent fraud is that the results be posted at each local polling station for 24 hours.

So there are already party representatives who are furiously tabulating their numbers to cross-check them against the Baghdad numbers and cross-check them, of course, against the claims of rival political parties. So I'm expecting within 24 or 48 hours, we're going to have a pretty good look at what the results are.

CONAN: And no one party or block of parties is expected to get a simple majority. Therefore, we're talking about weeks, if not months, of negotiations before a government can be formed.

LAWRENCE: More likely months. They - as you said, somebody needs to get 50 percent plus one, and no single party looked poised to do that, which is one of the ways in which this system is designed to keep Iraq together. The Shiites can't or shouldn't be able to band together and then ignore the concerns of the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. Neither of them, you know, the Kurds nor the Arab, Sunni Arabs, would be big enough to do it on their own.

They're forced to form a coalition. And the big question really will be: does Prime Minster Maliki, the sitting prime minister, will he win enough votes to really throw his weight around and force somebody else in coalition with him? Or, conversely, will everybody else gang up on him?

He's had to govern in the last four years. He's made a lot of promises. Some, he's been able to keep. Others, he's fallen short on, if you ask the people he promised to. And they could conceivably band together and form a coalition against him, even if he got the most votes, he might be out of a job.

CONAN: And he campaigned a lot on security, but jobs, well, it's still sounding like domestic politics here at home. Jobs are a big issue there, too.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, absolutely. Unemployment is still incredibly high across Iraq. There are a lot of bread and butter issues here. People will always say security, and when I was talking to people around Baghdad yesterday, a lot of people were voting, they said, for Maliki because of the hard work he's done on security, even if he didn't manage to prevent all of these big bombings we've had since August. They credit him for all of the progress in the last couple of years, much of which, some would argue, also goes to the U.S. troop surge and the creation of these Sunni awakening committees, where the Sunni Arabs turned against al-Qaida.

But some people, a lot of people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on security. And then, of course, they'll mention issues like clean water, like electricity as the temperature is already getting warm here, and they're looking towards another summer with a couple of hours on, a couple of hours off air conditioning when the temperatures get up to temperatures I don't even want to mention.

CONAN: Okay. Let me ask you about three different groups who will be important parts of any coalition. Sunni Arabs, we're talking out west, the heart of the insurgency. They boycotted the last parliamentary elections. They did not this time around. Do their numbers look comparable to the rest of the country?

LAWRENCE: Yes, they turned out pretty well. Anbar Province had 61 percent I'm just reading off the list in front of me from the committee, the High Commission for Elections. Salah ad Din Province, where the town of Tikrit is, it registered 73 percent, among the highest in the country. Sunnis clearly wanted to be in the process this time.

The curious thing is that on the ground, talking to our reporters, our correspondents in these provinces, they said that almost everyone was voting for Iyad Allawi, who is Shiite and a former prime minister, briefly, appointed by the U.S. as a caretaker. But he seems to be carrying the Sunni Arab banner. Of course, he's got a lot of allies who are prominent people in each of those provinces, but it's interesting to see all of the Sunni Arabs voting for a Shiite.

CONAN: What about Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shia forces who were, well, in rebellion not all that long ago?

LAWRENCE: Right. Muqtada al-Sadr has done an amazing job over the years of stepping in and out of the political process, sometimes fighting shooting wars against American soldiers and government forces and then still managing to be a political force inside the parliament.

Of course, he himself has been absent, in Tehran studying, or rather in Qum, the Shiite holy city of Qum in Iran. It doesn't look - and again, these are preliminary results, but there was a Shiite religious party coalition, including him and including some of his former bitter rivals, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, formerly known I guess it's now ISCI, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a coalition of Shiite religious parties, and that deal was literally made in Tehran as the leader of one of the factions was dying of cancer in a hospital there.

But it really a lot of Iraqis I spoke to really saw the mark of Iran on this coalition, and the preliminary results we have are that it didn't do as well as it might have expected, certainly splitting the Shiite vote also with Prime Minister Maliki, who's run more of a secular, nationalist coalition but still claims a lot of the Shiite vote.

CONAN: And then up north, Kurdistan, the Kurds, two dominant parties there for a very long time but in coalition, more or less, with each other throughout the post-Saddam era. What's going on up north and especially around the city of Kirkuk?

LAWRENCE: Well, it's very interesting. As you say, there are two parties up there. Imagine the Democrats and the Republicans, and then last July, they had their regional elections, and it was as if Ross Perot or Ralph Nader came and took 20 seats in the Senate.

The Change Movement, it's called. A former lieutenant of one of those two dominant parties said that he'd been fighting for years to end the corruption within the Kurdish political system, and Kurdistan, as you know, is a region, an autonomous region within Iraq that has its own regional elections. And this party came and grabbed a bunch of seats away in the regional elections.

There were expectations that they might do the same thing and really upset the political norms up there. My friends and our contacts up there are saying that they don't think the change list did as well as expected, but they're still going to grab a bunch of seats, certainly better than a third party has ever done in the States, for example.

CONAN: It's certainly not going to simplify things. Quil Lawrence, we're going to depend on you to keep these things straight for us as these torturous negotiations go ahead. Appreciate your time.

LAWRENCE: My pleasure.

CONAN: Quil Lawrence, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, author of "Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East." And he joined us, of course, from our bureau in Baghdad.

As important as the election is to the government there, it also marks a major milestone for Washington and the Obama administration's plans to withdraw American troops on schedule. Up next, what all this means for U.S. policy and troops on the ground, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

As we heard, it will be some days yet before we know the results of yesterday's elections in Iraq, and maybe months before a new government is formed. Still, yesterday's elections were historic for Iraqis and represent a key moment on the U.S. timetable, as well.

We'll talk about what's ahead for U.S. policy and for U.S. troops in Iraq. We'd especially like to hear from those of you with experience there. If you have questions about the way ahead in Iraq, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Here with us in Studio 3A, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, now president of the Center for a New American Security. Nice to have you back on the program.

Dr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): It's good to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And also with us, former Deputy National Security Advisor Meghan O'Sullivan, now professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and it's a pleasure to welcome you to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN (Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And what did yesterday's elections change? Professor O'Sullivan, why don't we begin with you.

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Well, I think that, first, we need to see the results of the elections to really get a sense if we can make a judgment about whether Iraq's voters have evolved in their political preferences.

A lot of people anticipated that this would be a major shift towards a less sectarian-oriented political system. This may be a step along the way. I think it's quite a long continuum, but really the question is: what is the government that follows these election going to look like? That's something that is the result of a fairly complicated process, and we won't know that, my guess is, potentially for months, not just weeks.

CONAN: Well, U.S. troops or combat troops are scheduled to be out by August.

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Well, that is the case. One thing that I don't know if many of your listeners are aware of is that deadline for all combat troops to be out by the end of this August, that is distinct from the other deadlines in the sense it's not a deadline that was negotiated between the Iraqis and the Americans.

CONAN: The SOFA, or Status of Forces Agreement.

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Yes, that Status of Forces Agreement had a June 30th deadline that had all American troops out of towns and cities, which was successfully met, and then would have all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

President Obama, when he came into office, inserted this third deadline, which is to have all combat forces out of Iraq by August of this year. I would bet that most Iraqis are not aware of that deadline, and it is a different it's a deadline with a different nature.

It's important, and I'm hopeful that Iraq and the United States will be able to meet that deadline, but I think maintaining a certain element of flexibility will be important because the months ahead could be well, they will be very critical.

CONAN: And John Nagl, let me turn to you. That deadline is very important for a lot of American citizens, who say the important question for them is, when are the troops coming home?

Dr. NAGL: Well, and what the American people need to realize is the troops are already coming home. So we've already drawn down more than 50,000 troops, 60,000 troops from the peak American involvement in Iraq, and the combat troops distinction, I'm afraid, is a little bit of a misnomer.

The Army plans, beginning in August, to only have advisory and assist brigades or AABs. To any person, Army or not, those units are going to look an awful lot like combat forces. They're going to be capable of conducting combat in order to protect themselves and protect American and Iraqi interests, but their focus is going to be on helping the Iraqi security forces become even more capable.

CONAN: Well, there are some roles that the Iraqi security forces are, as yet, incapable of performing, and there are a lot of logistics, any air operations, for example. American forces are going to be directly involved in those for quite some time to come.

Dr. NAGL: And I think probably well past the currently agreed deadline between the United States and Iraq of December 31st, 2011. So beginning January 1st, 2012, there is no way Iraq is going to be capable of defending its own air space against hostile air incursions, for instance.

It is my belief that one of the primary missions this new Iraqi government will have is renegotiating a Status of Forces Agreement in order to come to some security terms with the United States for 2012 and beyond.

CONAN: And the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a little vague but already talking about asking U.S. troops to stay a little longer than initially planned. We'll have to see what that means. But, Meghan O'Sullivan, as we look at this, does this begin to sound like something that the United States can say, well, we have left this a better place than we found it?

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Certainly with those qualifications in your statement, I would say that's definitely the case. Again, I underscore that Iraq is in for, likely, very, very contentious political debate that will stretch out for potentially the next few months. But when you look at the big picture, one of the things that I'm most struck by is that Iraqis are overwhelmingly choosing politics over violence to dispute to resolve their differences.

So their list of challenges and the lists of things that they need to work on is quite long, but as long as they're choosing political means to address that list, then I think there should be a certain amount of satisfaction among Iraqis and among the countries that have helped Iraq over the past few years.

If they continue to work in this manner and they no longer need international forces in their country, I would consider that progress and success by any standard.

CONAN: And again, we encourage those of you who have questions about the way ahead in Iraq to give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. John Nagl, you were nodding in agreement as Meghan O'Sullivan was talking.

Dr. NAGL: What I'm struck by is that, increasingly, Iraqis are Iraq is turning into a normal nation. It is conducting politics, and politics really, truly matters. And perhaps the most extraordinary fact about these elections is that we don't know who won.

So there was an election in the Middle East, and not only was it not 99.8 percent of the votes coming back for the current government, but we literally don't know who won. We won't know for a couple of days, if we're lucky. It won't be certified for weeks.

And so, democracy is truly happening in Iraq, and the path to get here has been far more costly than any of us would have hoped, but we do have, I think, for the first time in the Middle East, true democracy taking root and people continuing to risk their lives, Americans but also very brave Iraqi citizens, Iraqi soldiers, risking their lives in order to allow democracy the chance to find a toehold.

CONAN: Yet, a lot of that promise will depend on the performance of Iraqis military and police forces and if they are seen as non-sectarian. This has not always been the case in the past.

Dr. NAGL: This has not always been the case. This is a remarkable story, a remarkable turnaround story, I think, so that as late as 2006, Iraqi, particularly Ministry of the Interior forces, police forces, also some of their army forces, not very capable, not very well-equipped, riddled by sectarianism and, in some cases, frankly, death squads. And through a number of different events have come together to change that.

Quite frankly, Iraqi security forces now very highly regarded in the region and arguably the most capable of all Arab security forces already. And we know already now, for the next 18 months, they'll have American advisors and assistors, and I think that it will probably be longer than that.

CONAN: Meghan O'Sullivan, last week we had a man just back from a tour in the Abu Ghraib region, where he was on worked for the State Department on one of their provincial reconstruction teams and saying corruption continues to be a terrible problem, that it becomes difficult to convince Iraqis to cooperate with local authorities when those local authorities are taking a healthy bite out of everything.

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Sure. I certainly am aware that corruption is a big problem in Iraq and a significant problem in the region as a whole. I would say it's one of the top challenges for the next government, and it's certainly something that Iraqi voters took into account when they went to the polls.

It's also one of the things that I think has led to the importance of the provincial governments that have become more important as a lot of citizens have viewed the Baghdad government, the national government, to be one that is more corrupt and more difficult in making and executing decisions. So this will be an ongoing challenge for the next Iraqi government, and it's a standard that a lot of Iraqis are going to judge their government by.

CONAN: We were talking with Quil Lawrence about the situation in the north, in Kurdistan, an autonomous area. The borders of that autonomous area remain to be decided, and that's going to be a big issue. Nevertheless, are we going to see Iraq become more divided along these regional bases, or are we going to see a more centralized government in Baghdad?

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: This is actually the fundamental question in Iraq. When people ask me if I could, you know, wave a magic wand and just have one thing resolved in Iraq, it would be the balance of power between Baghdad and the federal government and powers that should go to the regions or the provinces.

This is something that Iraqis struggle. It's basically at the heart of what is the nature of the Iraqi state. Now, the Kurdish region that you're referring to in the north is very well-established. And my guess is that a long-term, stable Iraq is one in which you have a lot of autonomy in the north, and you have a significant amount of power in Baghdad, and you may or may not have different Arab regions or provinces. That has very much that remains to be seen.

The big issue, looking in the immediate term, really has to do with whether this government formation period will be a time when the Kurds and the Arabs work out a few of the outstanding issues in the context of forming a government.

Iraq has held three national parliamentary elections in January '05, December '05 and then again on Sunday. And on the previous two occasions, those elections and the government formation period that came afterwards was really a period of resolving - making political deals before the government was formed, which is part of the reason its taken so long. I expect to see the same.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Ted's(ph) on the line from Charlottesville in Virginia.

TED (Caller): I just wanted to - you guys have already touched on it since I've been on hold. But I have a very good friend, she's a single mother. Her - she - her teenage son is going to be living with us for the next, you know, over a year. She deploys on April 1st. She is in a reserve unit that was supposed to be a homeland security support unit that has been activated. So she's going to be training for three months and then will be in Iraq for a minimum of 14 months. And it's just one of those things that people who weren't ever expecting to go are still being called up to go to Iraq. And it's - so it's kind of an illusion, this troops-coming-home thing. It's very disruptive for her life. We're fortunate that we can take her son in for the next, you know, however long its going to require. But it's just an important thing. Too much press being made of people coming home when they're not.

CONAN: Well, some people coming home and others going to replace them. And Colonel Nagl, this is arithmetic you know all too well.

Lt. Col. NAGL: It is. And Ted, thanks for stepping up and helping take care of your friend's teenager. Your friend, of course, as a reservist, when you enlist in the Army, sign up for the military, there are no promises, and you are deployed where the nation needs you.

TED: I'm not questioning that. I'm just - I just wanted to make a comment because I think it's sometimes - it just - it gets lost in the discussion. You guys have been covering it but I hear so many people, especially around the distinctly left-oriented, and not to mean that in a negative way, but in Charlottesville, there's a lot of anti-war movement. And I think that some people just aren't realizing how many people are still stepping up to the plate here. You know, you're a soldier, you signed up. Yeah, there's no guarantees of anything. You do what you're supposed to do and...

CONAN: Yeah, still more U.S. troops in Iraq than there are in Afghanistan at the movement but...

Lt. Col. NAGL: Although I think that will change over the course of this year. So...

TED: Well, thank you all. I just wanted to add that just to get it out there.

CONAN: And Megan O'Sullivan, you wanted to add something?

Prof. O'SULLIVAN: Sure. I just wanted to underscore the fact that although fewer of our troops will be going to Iraq, net. The call on U.S. military is still very substantial, in part because of the increased deployments to Afghanistan. So it may be declining in Iraq, but we're still relying on our armed forces in a very considerable way.

CONAN: North of 60 percent of eligible voters turned out yesterday in Iraq, despite a wave of bombs that went off yesterday morning as the polls opened, even before they opened. We're talking about the stakes here for the Washington government and for U.S. troops. Our guests are John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel, president of the Center for a New American Security, and Megan O'Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser, now at the Harvard Kennedy School. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And another major question that's going to come up is, how are Iraqi forces going to be able to handle the situation given the withdrawal of more and more American forces, again in the aggregate, not necessarily individually? And John Nagl, they were in charge of security yesterday and that went reasonably well.

Lt. Col. NAGL: It did go pretty well. And one of the points that I wanted to make - my friends on the ground told me that a number of the bombs were actually water bottle IEDs, which are essentially very loud noisemakers, large noisemakers. So the security forces are doing better. The Iraqi security forces are doing better. But increasingly, the insurgents, the people setting off these explosions, attacking with mortar, with rockets, with roadside bombs, they are intending their attacks to kill fellow Muslims. And it is becoming harder and harder as America draws forces down for the insurgents to make any argument that they are in fact working to free their country. Instead, they are fighting, essentially, against their own fellow Muslims.

CONAN: And let's get Chris(ph) on the line. Chris is with us from - is this Traverse City, Michigan?

CHRIS (Caller): Yes, it is, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: Id just like to say - I'm just getting back, actually, from Iraq. I - the unit I was with just came back in late January, early February. And the situation over there - you don't hear about it as much because of the Afghanistan ramp up. But things over there are much calmer than they were a few years ago. And your speaker was just making the point that much of the violence there now is directed Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. The security forces have taken over for us a lot. And more than attacking us, they're attacking each other. So it's - the insurgents that are still active over there really can't make those kind of points, just like your speaker was saying.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: They are definitely using what they've learned against us on each other more than they are against us anymore.

CONAN: And Chris, can you tell us what part of the country you were based in?

CHRIS: I was with the 34th Infantry out of Minnesota. I was called up out of a program called the IRR, and I went with that unit. They were stationed - the division headquarters was in Basra, which is far southern Iraq.

CONAN: Indeed, the - if there was a Shiite region, that's where its headquarters would be.

CHRIS: Most definitely.

CONAN: All right, Chris. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

CHRIS: Okay.

CONAN: And welcome home.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Megan O'Sullivan, he's talking about Shia-on-Shia violence. Again, some people are concerned - he's talking about Muslim-on-Muslim, some people are concerned that within the Shias there's going to be a bitter and possibly violent dispute between those who are more loyal to Iran and those who are not.

Prof. O'SULLIVAN: Well, I think that on the question of Iran, if we look at what Iran's main objectives are, vis-a-vis the Shia parties in Iraq, they've really wanted these Shia politicians to run together. That was one of Iran's major objectives in this election, to make sure that there was one big political party under which all Shia ran. They werent successful. And you have, in fact, a divided Shia political party outlay. You have Prime Minister Maliki's coalition, which is primarily Shia but has some national elements. And you have sort of more Shia Islamist group that has run as a major party - on a major party platform.

CONAN: And the bloc headed by Ayad Allawi, also a Shia but a more diverse group.

Prof. O'SULLIVAN: A more diverse group. In fact, I think most of the votes that we'll see cast for Ayad Allawi, I imagine, will be in Sunni-dominated areas. But, basically, what this is, is a much more interesting political mix informing the government. You won't have Shia coming together to support a singular prime ministerial candidate. What makes it so interesting is we're likely to see - when these electoral results are certified, we're likely to see that it's not obvious who the prime minister is going to be and it's not obvious from which party he is going to come.

And that will lead to a lot of the wrangling. And here, I think you will see the Shia being split. I don't anticipate that this will become a violent split. In 2006, of course, the political vacuum led to a security vacuum. Iraq is in a much better position today than it was in 2006. Of course, that progression, political disagreements to security violence is possible, but I wouldn't say it's inevitable by any means.

CONAN: And, of course, a lot of people were curious what would happen when we shifted parties in this country between the Adams and Jefferson administrations, so we shall have to see should that happen in Iraq? If that can be an easy transition and a peaceful one, it'll be an important moment if it is.

Thanks to you both. We appreciate your time today. Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, now with the Center for New American Security and Megan O'Sullivan, formerly with the National Security Council and professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. They were both with us here in Studio 3A. When we come back, the Opinion Page and America's computerized cars. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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