Assessing Iraq's Options for Building Stability

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Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, talks with John Ydstie about what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can realistically do to lessen the violence in Iraq.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Also joining us from Amman is Joost Hiltermann. He is Middle East Project director of the International Crisis Group. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Middle East Project Director, International Crisis Group): Thank you very much.

YDSTIE: Mr. Hiltermann, how secure is the Maliki government? Is it capable of dealing with this insurgency?

Mr. HILTERMANN: It absolutely is not. It is a very weak government. It cannot govern. It doesn't have the security forces to protect itself. It is totally reliant still on American forces to provide security, and even that is not succeeding. The country is slowly sliding further into civil war.

YDSTIE: So what you're saying is that President Bush's suggestion today that Mr. Maliki is a strong leader is not in fact the case?

Mr. HILTERMANN: It is not only not the case, I think President Bush actually emphasized that by his demeanor in the press conference where he offered to have him answer some questions and then proceeded to answer the questions himself. If you are trying to build up a leader of a country as important to the United States as Iraq, the last thing that you should do is snub him in public. It is received very badly in the Middle East.

YDSTIE: Well, is there anything that it can do to strengthen its hand and stabilize Iraq?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Well I think at this point what is needed is a new political compromise between all the political groups in Iraq, including the insurgents, that focuses on the key issues that divide Iraqis now: federalism, decentralization - the degree thereof - and sharing of oil and gas revenues. I think the country cannot be partitioned into three parts. You can have significant autonomy for the Kurds, but the fear is now that the rest of the country will fall apart. It cannot be divided between Sunnis and Shiites. That's why a political compromise between these groups is so important.

YDSTIE: Is Maliki too beholden to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Yes he is. He is totally beholden to him, and that is why he cannot really do anything to curb the power of the militias and to stem the violence.

YDSTIE: Even al-Sadr doesn't seem to have control over all his supporters. Who does have power in Iraq right now?

Mr. HILTERMANN: Power has completely fragmented in Iraq. This is the real challenge that we face. This is a potential failed state situation. There are militias with known leaders, and there are insurgent groups, and there are crime mafias, and they all have their own leaderships. And at this point the real question is if you come still to some kind of political compromise, can individual leaders of these groups deliver their own followers to stem the violence?

YDSTIE: What should the path forward be for the U.S. right now?

Mr. HILTERMANN: What is needed is a political initiative by the United States and other members of the international community to bring around the table all of Iraq's political actors with the assistance also of all of the neighboring states. That would include Syria and Iran, who have great spoiling power in Iraq.

YDSTIE: Joost Hiltermann is Middle East Project director of the International Crisis Group. We reached him in Amman, Jordan. Thanks very much.

Mr. HILTERMANN: My pleasure, thank you.

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