Iraqi Politics in Tatters, One Month Before Report

Sunni politicians have left the Iraqi government, calling it too sectarian. Many Shiites are gone, too. This week, the Iraqi government called a meeting to bring together various factions — with mixed success at best. Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group talks with John Ydstie.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has often said there is no military solution in Iraq. There is only a political solution. And that political solution seems farther off rather than closer these days. Sunni politicians have left the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, calling it too sectarian. Disgruntled Shiites have left, too. There seems to be no movement towards agreement on any number of critical issues facing the country, including how to split up oil proceeds.

Joost Hilterman is the Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group. Normally, he's based in Amman, Jordan, but he joins us now from the Netherlands, where he's on vacation. Welcome.

Dr. JOOST HILTERMAN (Project Director, International Crisis Group, Middle East): Good morning.

YDSTIE: The Iraqi government is beginning this week the attempt to lure back Sunnis to the government with a much-ballyhooed crisis meeting. But some of the leading figures apparently have chosen not to show up.

Dr. HILTERMAN: Well, Tariq Al-Hashimi, one of the two vice presidents of Iraq, did not show up for the lunch on Tuesday that President Jalal Talabani had organized. But the real question is will he and his colleagues attend the first serious meeting that is taking place today?

YDSTIE: And what do you think? Will they?

Dr. HILTERMAN: Yeah, probably, because many other leaders of parties that had already stepped out of the government did attend the lunch yesterday. And so there is, for sure, a movement towards coming back together and discussing at least some of the very difficult issues that have divided these groups.

YDSTIE: Can this government, as it's constructed right now, be effective at all?

Mr. HILTERMAN: Very unlikely. Even if this government is reconstituted as a national unity government, it will remain just as dysfunctional as it has been. It will remain just as weak, just as divided, and just as unwilling, really, to make the kind of serious deals that need to be made in order to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And in all likelihood, this will not succeed.

YDSTIE: What's the central problem?

Mr. HILTERMAN: The central problem is that this government is so weak and so sectarian that it does not and will not make reconciliation with people it considers terrorists or representatives of terrorists and elements of the former regime who will restore Sunni power in Iraq at the expense of the Shiite majority.

YDSTIE: Who are the people inside of Iraq but outside of the government now who need to be brought into this process to give it some hope of working?

Mr. HILTERMAN: Well, if there were a serious political strategy that would involve, by necessity, the neighboring states, you could try to bring in a wider range of people. The insurgents' leaders are not included, and they would not come under these conditions. And you would have to bring in a number of local community leaders. One of the main deficits of the Iraqi political process is that the people have been represented primarily by former exiles who came into the country in 2003.

YDSTIE: What contribution can parties outside of Iraq make to this whole process?

Mr. HILTERMAN: Well, if the United States went about it in the right way, you could bring together the neighboring states in some kind of forum that would serve as a security framework, and that could both try to help restore stability in Iraq and contain whatever violence and civil war rages within the boundaries of Iraq.

YDSTIE: Over the past few months, of course, we've had a surge of U.S. forces in Iraq. And General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have to give a report to Congress on progress there just a month from today. What do you think they'll say?

Mr. HILTERMAN: Well, they will say that it is still too early. In their view, probably, there will be a need for a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq through the summer of 2009, as we've already heard. And they will hopefully also call on this administration to develop a political strategy, because so far, we have only seen the military component. And we have seen, on the political side only, more emphasis on the need for the Iraqi government to bring about some kind of political deals.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. In your view, is there any hope right now, or is the current road doomed to failure?

Mr. HILTERMAN: It probably is, because the government and the political leaders have no real popularity among the people of Iraq. They have not governed. They have not delivered on essential services, and they do not really represent these people in most cases. And so they cannot make the kinds of deals that are required. On the military side, you may see a suppression of some of the most violent actors, but this is a temporary thing. They will come right back up once the American forces start to draw down, which they will have to do when the political strategy fails.

YDSTIE: Joost Hilterman is the Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group. Thanks very much.

Mr. HILTERMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

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