Ambassador's Iraq Testimony Seen as Crucial

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will both testify before Congress next week on Iraq. While Petraeus has gotten the most attention, many think Crocker's assessment will prove to be the most important. Liane Hansen speaks with Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Iraq War supporters, opponents and those in the middle can all agree on at least one thing: This week is critical. That's because this week, the top U.S. Commander in Iraq David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will present their report to Congress.

General Petraeus' upcoming testimony is getting the most attention. But keep this in mind: The ultimate goal of the so-called surge in U.S. troops in Iraq was not so much for military one as a political one.

Here's how President Bush put it.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: These troops are all aimed at helping this Iraqi government find a breathing space necessary to do what the people want them to do and that is to reconcile and move forward with the government of, and by, and for the Iraqi people.

HANSEN: So it would appear that Ambassador Crocker's testimony about the status of that government will be vital to the future course of the Iraq War. For more, we ask Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who frequently appears on this program to return.

Welcome back, Michael.

Professor MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: You just visited Iraq. You wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times. You suggested there was encouraging military progress but disappointing political progress. So during your visits to Iraq, what did you learn about the potential for a stable representative government to establish itself?

Prof. O'HANLON: Well, I think you're opening was very good, apropos because in a way, as you say, Petraeus' testimony has been more anticipated but Crocker's may even be more important because the politics or the crux of this - in fact, General Petraeus himself has often said that in this sort of operation, the military part, is maybe 20 percent and the political party 80 percent of what you need to accomplish. What we saw in July was, therefore, on this issue not at all encouraging. It was continuation of political paralysis.

Now, the only good news is really in the sense that well, maybe, there's two ways you can look for good news if you're trying to find it. One is that among the ruling top-half dozen Iraqi political leaders, there is both a certain amount of capability and a certain amount of camaraderie and willingness to try to cross sectarian lines at least to an extent.

The other bit of good news is that the local level, you're seeing provinces not only the famous al-Anbar province where everyone is Sunni, but even places like Niniba(ph) province up north where there is a mix, where some local political leaders are starting to work across sectarian lines and work better with us.

HANSEN: Why haven't the different components - Iraq's, Shiites, the Sunnis, the Kurds, their leaders - been able to come together to reach some kind of compromise given everything that's at stake?

Prof. O'HANLON: Well, I'll put it starkly, which is maybe somewhat over simplistic, but nonetheless, these are two stories that were told to me about the classic answer of a Shia politician or the classic answer of a Sunni. A Shia politician will look at the Sunnis that they are being asked to compromise with and say those people are all former Baathist or current Baathist or would be future Baathist who want to overthrow my government, who think that it's their inherit birth right in Iraq to rule the country even though they are the minority. And Shia tend to, in many cases, see the Sunnis as plotting, just waiting for their chance to retake the country.

On the other hand - the Sunnis - they have their own issues as well. If Shia are paranoid in many cases, Sunnis, many of them do actually feel like they should be running the country. So the Shias are often paranoid and the Sunni have a sense of entitlement and the combination is really not very constructive.

HANSEN: So what kind of approach then could the United States take that would be most successful to bring these two together?

Prof. O'HANLON: Well, this is the fascinating part of next week because, you know, Petraeus is going to get some tough questions. But I think, he'll be able to handle them. With Crocker, however, they're going to say, do you guys support Prime Minister al-Maliki or not? The president seemed himself to be undecided on the question a couple of weeks ago. And their going to say, can this basic political system work or do we need a new election system in Iraq? There's some very big central questions about the future of Iraqi politics assuming that al-Maliki and his government won't deliver on these key issues before them in the next few weeks. And I think Crocker's going to have a very challenging time to explain to the Congress the various options we would have if the paralysis continues in Baghdad.

HANSEN: Senator Joseph Biden has been prominent proponent of a system for Iraq, a weak-central government and then each of the ethic groups having basic control. How well do you think that idea would work?

Prof. O'HANLON: Well, I'm a big supporter of Senator Biden's thinking. I think soft partition is the single most logical way to resolve the political conundrum in Iraq. But at the moment, the Iraqis don't tend to see it that way. And until they do, we can't easily impose it. Of course, many Kurds would be happy to have the sort of a system since it basically quantifies what they have already up north. And there are a couple of Shia groups that feel the same way. But most other political groups in Iraq seemed not to favor this kind of a solution. And by way, it would be no fantasy. It would require U.S. Forces to help provide security for a number of years as populations relocated and regional governments were built up.

HANSEN: You had a chance to meet with Ambassador Crocker when you went to Iraq recently, get to know the man, talk to him. What do you think he's going to say to Congress?

Prof. O'HANLON: I think he is going to have the hardest job because he will pass to combine a very silver message of insufficient progress so far that he, himself has acknowledged to very poor in recent weeks. We have a message of hopefulness that things can change and improve. And just how he's going to square that, I look forward to hearing.

HANSEN: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution he frequently appears on our program.

Thanks again, Michael.

Prof. O'HANLON: Thank you, Liane.

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