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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And again, the numbers from Iraq are sobering. The loss of a United States Marine in Anbar province yesterday puts the total of American dead this month at a hundred. Today, dozens more Iraqis died in a series of explosions and attacks in Baghdad. In an unannounced trip, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley arrived in Iraq this morning to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and with Iraq's national security adviser.

In this country, Iraq has emerged as the major issue in next week's midterm elections, which could cost the president's party control of one or both houses of Congress. While the White House insists there's been no change in strategy, the president no longer uses the phrase stay the course and said publicly last week that his patience is not unlimited.

Before the year is out, a bi-partisan panel will present much-anticipated proposals on Iraq polices that are not expected to advocate immediate withdrawal. But it appears that the days of blank checks may be beginning to draw to a close. If the U.S. reduces its investments of men and money, does it lose influence over events in Iraq as well?

Later on the Opinion Page, the bursting of the real estate bubble sends refugees to Omaha?

But first, how much leverage does the U.S. still have to affect events both politically and militarily in Iraq? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We begin in Baghdad, where Bobby Ghosh, Time magazine's chief international correspondent, joins us.

CONAN: Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. BOBBY GHOSH (Chief International Correspondent, Time Magazine): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: You've been reporting from Iraq over the past four years, that's obviously even before the war began. Is there any sense among the Iraqis you speak to that the U.S. may beginning - they've begun to change its course in Iraq?

Mr. GHOSH: Well, there's been a lot of concern recently in the past couple of weeks with the political season heating up in the U.S. and various voices in Washington calling for withdrawals or calling for a change of course and that -all of that reverberates across Baghdad. And people have been deeply concerned that a change may be coming, and they're worried that they don't know what form that change might take. The greatest fear here is that the U.S. may begin withdrawal shortly after the midterm election next week. And that, in the considered opinion of most people here, would be disastrous for Iraq.

CONAN: Because at this point the United States is the most important security presence there?

Mr. GHOSH: At this point the U.S. is the last remaining force that can keep the two sides of the civil war, of the sectarian war from each other's throat. Granted, it's not doing a terrific job of that right now. But there is a sense here that if the U.S. leaves, then that will be the final straw and militias on either side will fall upon each other and upon innocent civilians, and there'd be complete carnage.

CONAN: As you know, the opinion in this country is that the United States has very little interest in standing in the middle of a Shia/Sunni crossfire.

Mr. GHOSH: That is correct. And the sense here in Iraq is that the U.S., in its failure to anticipate the post war developments in Iraq, is at least partially, if not wholly, responsible for the sectarian war. The attitude is that you broke it, you should fix it.

CONAN: And at this point, clearly though - is there a sense that the situation is spinning out of control? There certainly seems to be that in this country.

Mr. GHOSH: We're certainly getting very close to that stage. In the past few days - I beg your pardon, in the past few months, the U.S. has been trying very hard to bring Baghdad under control with the large military presence here, Americans as well as Iraqi. That clearly does not seem to be working. The rate of killing has barley subsided. In the meanwhile, the rate of American dead has risen. So there is certainly a growing concern that, in its current posture, the U.S. military's not solving the problem.

The solution people here seem to think is for the U.S. military to change its posture, become more aggressive, not withdraw completely from the scene.

CONAN: Become more aggressive and thereby certainly risk at least the possibility of more casualties.

Mr. GHOSH: That is exactly correct. Now I should tell you that several senior American commanders, military commanders are of a similar opinion. They feel that by remaining essentially in their bases in forced protection mode, the vast majority of U.S. forces in this country is not doing a great deal of good. They're not helping Iraqis, they're merely trying to save themselves.

And there are commanders who feel that they should take the fights to the enemy, especially the Shiite militias led by Moqtada al-Sadr. They feel that they have their hands tied in part by Baghdad politics and also by Washington politics. But it seems clear to me that the administration does not have an appetite to take greater risk, precisely because it would probably lead to a greater number U.S. soldiers put in harm's way.

CONAN: And the situation, at least from this vantage point - and we're far away in Washington - but there seems to be more than one conflict going on. There's the Sunni/Shia conflict. There's the international terrorists acting against U.S. forces, acting against the Maliki government. There's the inter-Shia rivalry, as we saw in Amara, the different Shiite factions. There's all sorts of things going on, not all of which directly affect the United States. They're not about the U.S.

Mr. GHOSH: Well, no. In the short-term, that is certainly correct. At the moment, none of these things seem to affect the U.S. But should the U.S. withdraw, precipitously what is likely to happen here is what happened in Afghanistan, which is chaos, collapse of civic and political institutions, civil war that could rage for years on end, perhaps as long as a generation; many different sides fighting, warlords taking over. And in the meanwhile, in taking advantage of all this confusion, you could have international terror groups setting up bases here, setting up camps here for where they can train jihadis in skills that can subsequently be exported to other parts of the world.

As I said, this is exactly what we saw in Afghanistan. For a decade, the world turned its back on Afghanistan, saying, well it's a civil war; it's their problem. In Iraq, the situation could be much, much worse.

CONAN: Bobby Ghosh, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. GHOSH: Anytime, Neal.

CONAN: Bobby Ghosh, Time magazine's chief international correspondent with us today from his office in Baghdad.

Joining us now is veteran Iraqi politician Adnan Pachachi. He served as president of the Iraqi Governing Council and was an acting speaker of the Iraqi parliament. He's with us on the phone from London.

And it's nice to speak with you again.

Mr. ADNAN PACHACHI (Former President, Iraqi Governing Council): Thank you.

CONAN: And as things develop in Iraq, as these forces build up their armies, their militias, is U.S. influence over events beginning to wane in Iraq?

Mr. PACHACHI: Well, I think, as I've said often recently, that if there's going to be an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, then the country will descend into chaos. And we'll have perhaps fiefdoms, here or there in Iraq, controlled by militias fighting against each other for control of areas which are - which have resources.

CONAN: At this point, is it - you say the United States has no choice but to stay at this point.

Mr. PACHACHI: Well, because if it doesn't stay and no other force, international force comes into the country, then the country will - the situation would be chaotic. And as I said, the country would be under the control of various militias and each one would have its own system, so to speak, while fighting against each other for control of territory.

CONAN: Yet one of the difficulties seems to be that these militias are, well, they're part of the government in a way. The parties that control them are part of the government and they're in the army, they're in the police forces.

Mr. PACHACHI: Yes, and I think it's important that the security forces should be cleaned up as soon as possible. And the whole thing should be overhauled so that the new forces would be established on professional basis, and ensuring -that's important - ensuring their undivided loyalty to the state. This is not the case at present. But all this will take some time. In the meanwhile, I think it's important that there must be a force to confront the militias and the terrorists and the death squads and the armed gangs here and there, and the United States is the only one that has such a force. I don't know whether that means additional forces are required. I'm not so sure, but certainly more forces should be sent to Baghdad from other areas of Iraq.

I realize that American public opinion may not find this acceptable, more and more sacrifices in a war that seems to have no end. I realize that, and therefore I suggested that if the United States is unable or unwilling to get involved more deeply, then perhaps maybe some other forces, some other, you know, European, Muslim or Asian countries can come and help.

CONAN: There's also an important date that you write about in your op-ed piece that was in the Financial Times, and that is the review by the United Nations of the mandate of the multinational force.

Mr. PACHACHI: That's at the end of this year, that's right. There's about two months' time, a months' time. Yes.

CONAN: And what could that achieve if that is rewritten?

Mr. PACHACHI: Well, you know, the original resolution by which the multinational forces were sent to Iraq called on member states of the United Nations to contribute troops, and so this stands, I think. But, you know, there was some hesitation on the part of some countries to take part, but I think now perhaps if we're going to restructure the force and perhaps (unintelligible) out of the international control, it may induce some countries to participate.

CONAN: We're talking - and Mr. Pachachi, if you'd be so kind, we have to take a short break and we'll be back in a minute's time. And we're encouraging listeners to join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We're talking about U.S. influence in Iraq: how much leverage Washington has, how much it may dwindle as U.S. investments in blood and treasure decrease, if that is indeed the case.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, where there is feeling that policy toward Iraq may indeed change over the next few months. We're talking about the future there and the reception it may receive in Iraq. Our guest is Adnan Pachachi, who's former acting speaker of the Iraqi parliament, former chairman of the committee for drafting the transitional administrative law in Iraq. And of course you're welcome to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's get Chuck(ph) on the line. Chuck's calling us from Concord, Ohio.

CHUCK (Caller): Good afternoon. A couple of quick questions. I heard an ambassador talk last week on C-Span and he mentioned the situation in Iraq is so chaotic and so devolved that there - in fact, there is not even an Iraqi army but just rather a Shiite or a Sunni army, and that the Iraqi government has almost literally no affect outside the Green Zone. Are these perceptions true, and also...

CONAN: Why don't we do one at a time, Chuck?

CHUCK: Okay.

CONAN: Adnan Pachachi, what do you think?

Mr. PACHACHI: There is some truth in what the gentleman was saying. The - there has been heavy (unintelligible), very heavy (unintelligible) in the armed services, especially in the security services, by the various militias. And therefore it is impossible for the security services to fight against the militias that (unintelligible) them. And this is their weakness, and that's why - and also if you add to that the insufficiency of their training and their weapons and equipment, then you would understand why they have been easy and frequent targets of the terrorists and the armed gangs.

CONAN: Chuck, what's your second point?

CHUCK: I had heard that the Brits have analyzed the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and they have decided, or at least the rumor is, they have decided that Iraq is not winnable and that they think they still can win - the allies still can win in Afghanistan and they want to pull out their 7,000 troops from Iraq and try and concentrate on winning in Afghanistan. What would happen to the American presence if the Brits decided next year they would pull out of Iraq and concentrate on winning in Afghanistan?

Mr. PACHACHI: I think that will have a psychological effect rather than a material one because, you know, 8,000 troops compared to 140,000 I don't think would make much difference, frankly. But...

CONAN: And British troops are concentrated in the southern part of the country in and around Basra in the Shiite-dominated area.

Mr. PACHACHI: The main problem really is in Baghdad, and that's why the Americans have to get involved much more extensively and deeply.

CONAN: But, Adnan Pachachi, you're there in London today. And certainly, according to all the opinion polls, everything we read, the British public certainly is convinced that it's time to get out.

Mr. PACHACHI: Yeah, the British public is even more convinced than the American public that they should end their involvement in Iraq. I realize that. That's why I think it's worthwhile trying to get some other countries to participate alongside American, or British forces if they stay, or other forces from other countries.

CONAN: Okay. Chuck, thanks very much for the call.

CHUCK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get one last question for Adnan Pachachi. This is Robert(ph). Robert's with us from Alexandria, Virginia.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me okay?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: Yes, sir. I think we need to leave. We can't fix that situation. Too many people have died. There's too much animosity towards the United States. If we leave, the United Nations will come in, and that's what should have happened in the beginning. So the best thing for the United States to do is withdraw, get the United Nations to come in, and maybe we can get some sort of semblance of peace and civility in the area.

CONAN: Let me just ask you a question Robert? If the predictions are true that this would mean more chaos, more fighting in Iraq rather than less, what nations exactly in the United Nations do you think would volunteer to send their forces to Baghdad?

ROBERT: I think that it would reduce the amount of animosity towards foreign troops if the United States were not a part of the multilateral force that would go in.

CONAN: Do you agree on that

ROBERT: I beg your pardon (unintelligible).

CONAN: Okay. Yeah, we're losing your line Robert, but I'll ask Adnan Pachachi for a response.

Mr. PACHACHI: Well, I don't think there's such great animosity towards the United States. On the contrary, I think what's happening now is that most - a lot of people in Iraq, as I think the Times correspondent himself has said, more people in Iraq are convinced that the only way to retrieve the situation is for the United States to play a bigger role in confronting the militias and the armed gangs and death squads. This is the main thing. I mean if we are able to stabilize the situation in Baghdad, I think perhaps then Iraq would be on the road to safety.

CONAN: With respect to - I know a hundred Iraqis die every day, but there are a hundred Americans dead this month in Iraq. It's hard for Americans to believe that there's not a lot of hostility towards Americans.

Mr. PACHACHI: I realize that. I realize that, but I want to, you know, tell the American public this is the situation. They have to make the decisions themselves, because if they leave Iraq there will be chaos and that will have very serious consequences for the region and also eventually for the interests of the United States.

CONAN: Adnan Pachachi, as always, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. PACHACHI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Adnan Pachachi, a long-time Iraqi politician. Most recently he served as acting speaker of the Iraqi parliament, to which he's still a member, and he spoke with us today on the phone from London. With us now here in Studio 3A in Washington is Dennis Ross. He was chief negotiator on the Middle East peace process in both the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations. He's now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy here in Washington, D.C. And, Ambassador Ross, nice to have you back on the program.

Ambassador DENNIS ROSS (Counselor, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Nice to be with you.

CONAN: You wrote an op-ed two weeks ago in The Washington Post called A Plan for Iraq, where you wrote: No one in Iraq seems to want us there. We may be hearing somewhat differently today, but everyone is afraid to have us leave.

Ambassador ROSS: Well, I think we just heard, in a sense, that point confirmed. I think what you're hearing more than anything else - from Mr. Pachachi was an unbelievable sense of fear about what will happen if the United States withdraws, a high sensitivity to what he thinks is American public opinion which is moving us towards such a withdrawal, and just a profound dread over what the consequences of what an American withdrawal would be.

What is interesting is he kind of put everything on Baghdad, which is pretty much where the American military command in Baghdad - in Iraq - was a couple of months ago. That's why we repositioned forces to Baghdad, because we felt if we can't stabilize the situation in Baghdad, we're not going to be able to succeed within Iraq. So three months ago that's precisely what we did, and what we've seen is an inability to get Baghdad under control. Now the answer could be well, you don't have enough troops in Baghdad, you have to put more in there. Or there should be again an assessment of what are the reasons we're not able to get it under control. Is it simply because we don't have enough forces or is it a situation where at this point we don't have an Iraqi partner that is capable or willing to do enough?

When I listened to Mr. Pachachi talk about getting other forces from outside, I wonder who's about to volunteer to provide those forces. And it leads me to the conclusion that unless we can see Iraqis doing more to help themselves, it's going to be pretty hard either to sustain our presence for the long haul or to get others in there.

CONAN: Well, we are seeing Iraqis do more for themselves, but they may not define themselves the way we would like them to define it. They may define themselves as the Badr Brigade or the Mahdi Army or as al-Qaida, for that matter.

Ambassador ROSS: For sure. One of the things I also suggested is that it really is long past due to have a national reconciliation conference where the amendments to the constitution are finally worked out. So long as you don't have a national compact, you're not going to overcome these differences. And the question is whether or not it's too late for that. My own feeling at this point is it's not too late for that.

If we're going to try to manage a transition in Iraq, one of the things we're going to have to see is that the Iraqi government, notwithstanding all of its weaknesses, it has to make some basic decisions. What is it going to vis-à-vis the Sunnis? What is it going to do vis-à-vis the militias? How is it going to try to reconcile what the particular needs are? Will it go for some kind of national reconciliation conference, as opposed to a national reconciliation plan?

The prime minister has had a plan, but the plan doesn't deal with the constitution. The Sunnis went and supported the constitution in the elections precisely because they expected that there was going to be amendments to that constitution in a variety of areas, including the sharing of oil, including what the role of Islamists, including what would happen with provinces who wanted to secede.

If you don't deal with those questions, as hard as they might be, it's hard to see how you change the dynamic. If we're going to change the dynamic the way Mr. Pachachi wants, and which in a sense I think we would all like to see, we're going to have to save something from within Iraq that gives us a reason to be more believing that in fact this is manageable, which could also then have an effect on others internationally. I think his hope to have others involved internationally is really I think a kind of forlorn hope unless in fact others will see that there's a basis to think that something can be done.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Randall(ph). Randall calling us from Virginia Beach in Virginia.

RANDALL (Caller): Yes, sir. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

RANDALL: Well, sir, I was in the United States Marine Corps about three years ago. And I honestly really support - well, at the beginning I've got to say I really supported the president in his decision to go into Iraq. But the only thing that I see that I kind of have a problem with now that what's going on is no country necessarily likes to see their troops go in and lose their lives and, you know, risk their lives out here in battle. But that's any country, that's any war.

I don't believe that we really stayed the course the way that we should have in the war. As a matter of fact it seems there's a lot more that could've been done. We should've been more up front; we should've been more supportive. We already knew that Iraq didn't have the force to support the war or the things that we're asking them to do.

That's why we're going there as an example, and I don't believe that we're setting that example, sir.

CONAN: And do you think now, given where we are, that we need to think about reinforcing the troops in Baghdad, in Iraq in general? Or do you think it's time to begin putting, as many policymakers and certainly public opinion in this country seems to think, that it's time to tell the Iraqis, look, we're pulling out. You better take responsibility now.

RANDALL: Well, sir, I honestly don't see where that's going to help. At this point, basically, yes, we had a big part of getting them there into where they're at. And to pull out right now, it's not only breaking faith, we got the whole world watching what's going on right now. And to pull out right now I just believe it would be a ridiculous decision.

CONAN: And did you serve in Iraq, sir?

RANDALL: Yes, sir, I did. I served in Enduring Freedom, about two and a half, going on three years now.

CONAN: Well, you certainly know more about it than I do, I suspect.

RANDALL: Correct.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Randall.

RANDALL: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Is it time to - is one of the options, Dennis Ross, to reinforce the U.S. force in Iraq?

Ambassador ROSS: Well, I think it would be pretty hard to make that decision unless you had some sense of where you were headed, I mean the notion that we would put more forces in there if in fact you're not able to put Iraq back together in some sense. If there isn't any prospect of a national compact, if there isn't any prospect that you're going to be able to work out some set of understandings among Iraqis so that they will not just assume responsibility as a slogan but begin to resume responsibility as a nation, pretty hard to see what reinforcing does other than simply sink you deeper into it.

I'm not in favor of a precipitous pullout. I think it would just create even greater chaos than we see. But I don't think that we can justify our staying solely on the grounds that if we don't stay it'll get even worse. That becomes a self-fulfilling trap. You can never leave. And also Iraqis never fulfilled any responsibilities.

So we've got to strike a balance between precipitously getting out but also staying there in a way that gives Iraqis no particular reason to understand that in fact there's a danger that we will get out unless they begin to find some ways to create connections among themselves other than killing themselves.

CONAN: We're talking about, what else, Iraq. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Chuck(ph). Chuck with us from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thanks a lot. I must say the discussions I hear about the situation in Iraq always seem to talk about the need to transfer responsibility for security to Iraqis or to put more pressure on the Iraqis to reform their government or to take more responsibility. And it seems to me that just begs the question, which Iraqis?

As you already discussed, it seems that, well, if we transfer security responsibility to the Iraqi armed forces, that in many cases would mean transferring security to Shiite militia forces, who I imagine - the Shiites are now somewhat divided. But I suspect if we sort of absented our self from the picture, they would maybe quickly overcome their differences and the security forces would simply become Shiite.

And likewise with the need for political reform. Looking to the Iraqis to reform their political system is asking essentially them to rebalance the power structure and asking the people with the power to come up with a rebalanced power structure where they would have to give it up. And that seems like asking quite a bit.

So while I see a political solution is really the only nice way out of this situation, it seems to me that it's tough to look to the Iraqi government to bring that about. And the thing that I'm worried about is if that doesn't happen and we do leave and you end up with essentially a bunch of nations ourselves, maybe Iran, maybe Saudi Arabia, kind of fighting a proxy war there, we would probably be lined up behind the Shiites because that would be sort of the government that we may be set up.

But I'm wondering who's going to line up behind the Sunnis? Is it going to be maybe Saudi Arabia or maybe al-Qaida?

CONAN: Dennis Ross?

Ambassador ROSS: It's a very interesting analysis and I'm afraid it may be too close to the mark. I think one of the big fears is that if you have a kind of an American withdrawal and you end up with what is a real convulsion within Iraq far beyond even what we see today, you end up with the Sunnis, the neighboring Sunnis backing the Sunnis. So that's the Saudis, it's Jordan, it's Turkey.

CONAN: Syria.

Ambassador ROSS: Syria's a mixed bag because it's led by the…

CONAN: Alawi

Ambassador ROSS: The Alawi regime. The majority of Syrians are Sunni. But in a sense the stand in some respects opposed to their own regime. You have strange bedfellows there. It's not quite clear where the Syrians would come out on this. They'd probably focus mostly on how they…

CONAN: And they're allied with Shia Iran…

Ambassador ROSS: That's right. So it's more complicated. They're, you know, there is the al-Qaida character of at least part of this insurgency without question. So it's a very complicated picture.

But I want to deal with something else that the caller was sort of getting at. I mean my own thinking in some respects has been influenced by something that Senator Biden and Les Gelb wrote of federalism. My view has been you're going to probably end up with something that looks like what they're talking about.

The question is it can either happen through what is a 10 to 15-year civil war where at the end of that period exhaustion sets in, they've fought each other in a way that costs everybody; not just in Iraq, but all the neighbors too because they'll be competing at the same time.

Somewhere down the road, 10, 15 years, you come up with a modus vivendi. It looks a little bit like a central government with limited powers, provinces with extensive autonomy, some sharing of revenues, some relationship between the various provinces and the like.

So you either do it in a very expensive, highly costly way or you see if you can manage it through some kind of political process. It's obviously vastly preferable to manage it through a political process. Our forces could be the handmaiden to managing that process provided that there isn't a sense some effort made on those within Iraq, including those that the caller says are now in power.

He says why would they surrender power. Well, it's not a case of surrendering power. It's a case of do they avoid the abyss or not? They will have to help make that choice.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks for the call. We're going to continue with Ambassador Ross when we'll come back from a back. And we'll also be talking about, well, if you're a housing bubble refugee in need of a home, an invitation on the Opinion Page to check out Omaha. 800-989-2855, if you'd like to join that conversation.

This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Let's continue our conversation about U.S. leverage in Iraq. And our guest is Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton, currently a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Before the break, Ambassador Ross, you were talking about how do we measure progress in Iraq.

Are security markers the best way to measure it? There are people talking about timetables, deadlines. How do we do this?

Ambassador ROSS: I really believe the best way to measure it is whether or not you're seeing some sort of political transformation. And it can't be measured only in terms of elections. It is really measured in terms of is there some effort to work out some kind of national compact.

We have all sorts of security measures that we've heard over the last several years. We're supposedly, we're going to, as we stand up to the Iraqi forces, we're going to stand down. But we have 300,000 Iraqi forces that have been trained. The question is when you train an army, the question is will the army fight as an army.

And we're finding if there isn't the kind of sense of national compact or national understanding and a government that the army's prepared to fight for, then they don't fight for that government. When we tried to bring in six battalions into Baghdad to support what we're doing in Baghdad, we could produce two from the Iraqis.

So it's not a question of how many people you have under arms, it's a question of whether or not they're prepared to fight for some sort of larger idea other than, in a sense, their own region or their own sect.

CONAN: And how do you measure that kind of political will?

Ambassador ROSS: Well, for me, I think one measurement would be, as I said, if you produced amendments to the constitution, there you would have some manifestation of adjustment. There you'd have some demonstration that there's a readiness on the part of each of the leading groups to make an adjustment to the others.

The fact that it hasn't taken place is a pretty good measure of what our problem is. So one of the ways I would try to concentrate the mind as it were is rather than simply imposing a deadline where we withdraw, because then I think that just gets everybody to focus on building up their own militia to plan for the…

CONAN: Post-U.S.…

Ambassador ROSS: Exactly. I would rather say we'll negotiate with the government, and we'll negotiate the government a timetable where they have an input. So they know the clock is ticking. They know that in a sense they can affect what we do. But here's where I would relate that to having a national reconciliation conference where you don't disband it until you reach some understanding on amendments.

The better they do on the former, the more flexible we can be on the latter. So if we see them making a real transition politically, then we can become much more flexible in terms of how we approach our own presence and the role of our presence to help that transition. And if they're not, it's pretty clear we can't stay in the midst of a civil war.

So that's, for me, how I would try to get this. Negotiating a timetable but also having it tied to some sort of political initiative at the same time.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Terry(ph). Terry is with us on the road in Vancouver, Washington.

TERRY (Caller): Yeah, this is Terry. I'm listening to this conversation and it's really based on politics. And the overtones are very Western perception of what we think a democracy ought to be. But I haven't heard you touch on the fact that the factions and the divisions within that country are based on deep traditional lines segregating the parties not necessarily in a political aspect but more or less in a religious aspect.

And you're asking them to erase their differences that go back I mean eons of time and generation after generation. And you're asking them to take off their cloaks of their religion and try to become more Westernized. And I don't see how this is going to become accomplished because these people have it ingrained in them that their future, their martyrdom comes from dying for their cause and going to a better place in the hereafter.

And there are way too many people over there willing to do this with the idea that they'll go into a beautiful afterlife. And their religious aspects take a precedent over any political or Western idea of what democracy is. It's not about democracy for these people.

I'm reading a book about end of faith right now, and he highlights an awful lot about the Islam religion. And maybe we're asking way too much of these people to develop a unity in their country through a government.

CONAN: Well, Terry - certainly, Ambassador Ross, in the last election, Iraqis did not vote for this political grouping or that political grouping, but certainly for ethnic and religious groupings.

Ambassador ROSS: Yeah, there's no question that's true. But I think we - there sometimes is a tendency to sort of over-simplify this, too. I mean, the fact is Kurds are also Sunni, so it's not such a clear distinction between Sunni, Kurds, Shia as you might think. Between Sunnis and Shia there's a divide, but part of the divide is a function of this area having been dominated for the last 400 years by Sunnis. And what Shia see themselves getting is their rightful place in Iraq now.

CONAN: And getting their own back.

Ambassador ROSS: And getting their own back. And so in a sense, they are in a sense saying, look. We're the majority. We should have the power, the privilege and the rights of the majority, which was denied us all this time. Sunnis may intellectually understand this, but emotionally find it difficult to say gee, an underclass - which is the way they always looked at the Shia - are now going to dominate us.

So part of what you're contending with is not the religious divide, as much as we might think that it is. It's more a case of habits of having lived a certain way, some now wanting to correct what was a fundamental imbalance and injustice before, and the question is can you create an adjustment for that?

The truth is, we're sitting here - I don't think we're talking about democracy. I think we're talking about how you create a stable Iraq out of what is a completely chaotic, violent Iraq, which is replacing what was a stable but incredibly brutal Iraq.

So in a sense - I mean, one of the earlier comments was we broke it, so it's our responsibility to fix it. Well, the truth is it was broken already. The question is now that it's broken also in a different way, what is it that we can do to try to make it better? Can we help in a transition or not? As I said, eventually, I think 10 or 15 years from now, there'll be a modus vivendi. The question is the price, and do we have to experience all that, or is there a more sane way to do this or not?

CONAN: Ambassador Ross, thanks very much.

Ambassador ROSS: Thank you.

CONAN: Dennis Ross was chief negotiator on the Middle East peace process in the administrations of George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton, now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy here in Washington, D.C. And when we come back, the Opinion Page.

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