An End In Sight For Iraqi Government Deadlock

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Iraq has set a record for the amount of time between an election and establishing a government. But there are signs that the dueling factions may soon end their stalemate. Christopher Hill, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, sorts out the election and the seven months of confusion that followed.


Iraqis went to the polls seven months ago, and according to some reports political leaders may finally be close to an agreement on a new government. The incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, won a crucial endorsement from militant Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr, which may give al-Maliki a working majority in parliament. Even so, the secular bloc Iraqiya vows to oppose al-Maliki's second term.

Christopher Hill returned from Baghdad this summer, where he served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He's now dean at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Ambassador Hill, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): Great to be here.

CONAN: And can you help us understand why it's taken all this time to come to an agreement on a new government?

Mr. HILL: Well, it's been - what to say? It's been politics, but I suppose you can have too much of a good thing. Basically what happened was, you had a Sunni-led party called Iraqiya, who's actually under a Shia leader named Allawi, and they ended up with a plurality - that is, 91 votes. But you need 163 seats to actually get the majority of the parliament, and they have had a really tough time getting any Shia support, any Shia or Kurdish support.

Meanwhile, you have a Shias who are rather, you know and they're not united. And so Maliki has had trouble getting other Shia to join him with his party, which has 89 seats. And so only in the last few days has he been able to get some Shia, and ironically the most radical of them, to join with him. So he definitely has a leg up on Allawi but it remains to be seen whether he's going to be able to get to 163.

CONAN: And so we'll have to see if he can hammer together a coalition.

Mr. HILL: Right.

CONAN: But in any case, it looks like it's going to be a weak government no matter who's in charge.

Mr. HILL: Well, that's hard to say. I mean, first of all, they've had no government, which means that for some nine months or so they've had no legislation at all through the parliament. So I think when they do get a government, they will get broad participation. I think if Maliki is able to reach 163, I think before you know it, he'll get support from some other parties. So it'll be a government that will have Kurds, will have Sunnis, will have Shia. And when that is done, I think they'll be able to push through legislation on things like economics and the like.

CONAN: What we've been told in the past is that this lengthy and cumbersome process of arguing out the shape of the new government is, in fact, sort of the equivalent of working out what its policies are going to be and what the proposals are going to be, that there's agreement that we're going to do this and do this and do this, so once a government is installed, things move fairly quickly.

Mr. HILL: I think that's fair to say. Now, you know, there are obviously disagreements and sometimes deals that are reached to actually put together. The government may not stand when they actually sit in parliament to figure out what the legislation's going to look like.

But I think generally the issue is trying to put together that government. Once they're able to do that, I'm not too worried about paralysis. I mean, the paralysis is the fact that they don't have a government, therefore no legislation is going forward in the parliament.

CONAN: And is there going to be a credibility problem for Nouri al-Maliki, for reaching out to, as you suggested, among the most radical of the Shia factions?

Mr. HILL: Well, it kind of depends on what the deal is, and we don't really know what the deal is. If it involves, for example, releasing known criminals or people who've been, you know, guilty of murder and things like that, you be there'd be a credibility problem. But if it doesn't involve that, if it involves some ministries that are maybe not all that significant, I think it can be done.

Now, Maliki has made the point to me on many occasions that he was not willing to sell the farm to get the Sadrists in. So we'll see what happens.

CONAN: The other issue would be relations with Iran. Muqtada al-Sadr with very close relations with Iran.

Mr. HILL: Well, he has close relations with Iran, but you know, I'm not sure that's the most beautiful relationship I've seen. I mean, this is a guy who is a little hard to pin down. You recall at one point he flew off to Syria with no warning and he met he met with the with Allawi, who represents Iraqiya, and it's very clear the Iranians didn't want him to do that. So I you know, Iran has important an important role in Iraq. It's a historical neighbor. It has, you know, thousands - tens of thousands of religious pilgrims who come every year to the holy cities of Najaf, for example. But it doesn't mean that they necessarily dictate the tune politically.

CONAN: As we look ahead, there are any number of challenges to Iraq's new government, whenever it is formed. And among them is the urgent business of Kurdistan and the question of the status of, well, the largest city that may be in Kurdistan or not in Kurdistan, depending on who you talk to.

Mr. HILL: Well, that's right. And I think one of the things that the Kurds want to see is - as they enter the government - they want to see some movement on these negotiations, the so-called DIBs process, the Disputed Internal Boundary. And the city, of course, you're referring to is Kirkuk.

Frankly, if you go to Kirkuk, you sort of - you know, it's okay, but you sort of wonder what all the fuss is about. But then when you start talking people, you see that it is indeed a very emotional issue. Now the U.N. is in charge of a process there of trying to bring the Kurds together with the Arabs, but it's been a - it's been tough going. And the hope is that when there is a government, there will be a kind of deal to, kind of, move ahead.

I would not look, however, for any quick resolution of this internal dispute, internal boundary. I think what does one could look for is sort of revamped process where everyone calms down and where they, at least, get the economics of that area moving. For example, Kirkuk has oil, and it would be nice if they could reach some sort of political modus operandi such that there will be some investment in there, and things will move forward

CONAN: Well, the larger issue of Kurdistan and the degree of its autonomy will come up too. At the moment, those areas north in - of Kirkuk are pretty much an independent state. They sell their oil through a pipeline to Turkey.

Mr. HILL: Well, they do, but they also have an oil deal with the Iraqis. Meaning that Kurdistan has a right to get 17 percent of Iraqi oil wherever it's produced. And I can tell you there's a lot more oil in the southern part of Iraq, that is in the Basra area, than there is in Kurdistan. So I would argue -and I think the Kurd - Kurds have figured this out on the back of a used envelope, that 17 percent of 10 million tons of oil - 10 million barrels of a day is a lot more than 100 percent of their own oil.

CONAN: And getting them to Basra, this oil to be developed, it needs a lot of investment. Are those leases going out? Are people feeling confident enough to invest billions of dollars to develop those fields?

Mr. HILL: Well, you know, if you look at the real progress in the last year in Iraq; certainly getting election law, getting a successful election, albeit very slow government formation process - I will not put those in the category of historic developments. What I would put in the category of a historic development was the government's decision to go ahead and reach oil production agreements with some 11 different companies. And when you look at who these companies are, Americans are there, but we're not there in a really big way. There's a Dutch Royal - Royal Dutch Shell. There's BP. There is the Lukoil, the Russian company. There's a Italian company, all kinds of different companies. And, indeed, all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - that is Russia, China, U.S., Britain and France - all have large oil interest in Iraq now.

And so these companies, you know, they don't just go in without having done their homework. They've done a lot of homework. They realize they have infrastructure challenges. But based at what we've seen to date, I believe that in some - it will take five, it will take, maybe, upwards of seven, even eight years. But we will begin to see Iraq being able to exploit its own oil for its own people, at rates that will be kind of akin to what Saudi Arabia has. And at that point, Iraq is in a new whole ballgame.

CONAN: And so that's going to take five, six, seven years. Is there going to be enough stability in Iraq to wait out that period?

Mr. HILL: You know, that's always the question. I think Iraq - Iraqis know how to manage security. I mean, it's rough at times. You kind of want to avert your eyes at times. But I think they know they can manage the security situation. I think they'll be able to manage this economic situation. I think, basically, things are moving ahead with the oil companies. I mean, we in the American embassy work very closely with some oil companies. They have problems with Iraqi visas and that sort of thing. That kind of problem can be resolved.

The real issue for Iraq, is can they work out political arrangements that don't take seven, going on eight months, to put together a government? Can they kind of calm down the political situation and get everyone to understand that it's not just politics that runs the country, it's also going to be economics. That, to me, is the challenge for Iraq, working through the politics.

And, you know, they have to do it with these very (unintelligable) institutions. They have to do it with mountains of mistrusts between Sunnis and Shia, and not to mention the Kurds. They have a lot of problems in working through the politics. But if they can kind of tread water with the politics, I think the economics will catch up and be helpful to stabilize in the political scene.

CONAN: You mentioned the level of distrust. And, well, certainly in the past two years since 2004 and 2005, it's been the Shias and Sunnis that have been -brought the country very close to a civil war. In the aftermath of the American departure from the combat scene, some effort of some 400 Sunni policemen -people who are part of the Sunni uprising who helped the Americans combat al-Qaida in Iraq out in Anbar province, out in the west in Fallujah, Ramadi and places like that - they have been found unqualified for their jobs as policemen by, as they would see it, a Shia government and they're about to be fired.

Mr. HILL: Well, to be sure, this issue of the so-called Sons of Iraq, the SOI, this is going to be, you know, an ongoing issue. It basically took Sunni militia groups who were shooting at the Iraqi army - and frankly, shooting at us - and getting those Sunni militia groups who had, by the way, also been allied with al-Qaida in Iraq - and getting them to essentially switch sides and don uniforms of the Iraqi police who, just by the demographics of it, were mainly Shia.

It was a huge undertaking and it's essentially worked. But the problem is what do you do with all these formal militia men. Can you bring them into Baghdad and put them behind desks in the Ministry of Interior? Not so easy. There are not so many jobs. Do you want to keep them out in the field having them control checkpoints? You know, questions like that. So, it's an ongoing problem.

Anyone has to be concerned about this, has to be looking every month to see whether the finance ministry has made the payments to these guys. And frankly, like a lot of things in Iraq, it runs late. So, you know, so often we had to go in and talk to the finance minister or go in and talk to the prime minister. So it's going to be an ongoing issue.

I would not react too strongly to these 400. I don't know the circumstances of this issue. All I can say is, there are going to be issues going forward. But frankly speaking, by the standards of, you know, putting together political deals in that country; so far, so good.

CONAN: We're talking with former ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, now at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And that brings us, Ambassador, to the role of the United States in the -what's going to be happening in Iraq. We're told the combat role is over. The United States has assisted the Iraqi forces in various kinds of operations. Fifty thousand U.S. troops still there. How long are they going to be there, do you think?

Mr. HILL: Well, according to the security agreement that we have with Iraq, they're going to be there through the end of 2011. And by the way, I should add, 50,000 troops in that part of the world, supported as these troops are by the best equipment in the world, this is quite a robust force. So I wouldn't want your listeners to think we've somehow drawn down to the point where our guys aren't going to be able to defend ourselves or be able to work with the Iraqis. They will in both cases. So it's a very robust force.

And so the question really is, at 2011, the legal framework by which they are in the country, will expire. So at that point the Iraqis, I think, are going to have to make a decision. Do they want U.S. forces to remain in the field in Iraq in their capacity as training Iraqi forces? So they're going to have to make a decision and then come and ask. And then the U.S. administration is going to have to listen to the proposal and decide what to do. But the point is, the security agreement expires at the end of 2011, and that's when the crucial moment will arrive.

CONAN: We got a caller on the line. Albert(ph) is with us calling from Tuckahoe, New Jersey.

ALBERT (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Albert, go ahead.

ALBERT: Yes. When they were given us all the lowdown on why they wanted to go to war, they said - certain people said that the oil over there was going to pay for the war. Well, it's been eight years, 4,000 lives, a trillion dollars. And now we're finding out, oh yeah, the oil is going to start flowing again but it's not going to really, you know, benefit us. I just wonder, you know, what piece of that we're going to get to help pay for this war.

CONAN: Ambassador Hill.

Mr. HILL: Well, I think that's a fair question to ask, but I would not want to personally associate myself with people who said that oil is going to pay for this war. This war has been extremely costly, as the caller suggests; extremely costly, not only in dollars, but in also in the deaths of over 4,000 Americans. At the end of the day, you know, our hope is that Iraq will be kind of a normal country, will be exporting oil and not exporting instability, will be a country that gets along with its neighbors. That kind of country. But I dont think we can look forward to somehow some big payback from the Iraqis for our taking out Saddam Hussein.

CONAN: Albert, we also have to remember, the United States, in the invasion in the insurgency that followed, well, 100,000 Iraqis at least have died in the country and much of the country has been destroyed. So, it's not like they're shaking their hands over this. So - and thanks very much for the call though.

Ambassador Hill, we just have a few seconds left. It sounds like you are guardedly optimistic. Is that fair to say?

Mr. HILL: Well, I think it's important in life, always to be optimistic even with respect to Iraq. But frankly, when you look at the country, when you step back a little and - you know, I left some six weeks ago and already I have a kind of different perspective. When you step back a little and you look at the objective circumstances of the country, I think it's one of those places in the world that will make it. It does have natural resources, which are very important. As I said, it's going to take some time. And I understand the caller's viewpoint that maybe it's taken too much time. But I think in the long run, it will be okay.

CONAN: Good luck with your new job.

Mr. HILL: Thanks very much

CONAN: Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, with us from the University of Denver where he's now dean at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Tomorrow, on TALK OF THE NATION, the Political Junkie in San Francisco. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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