MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This week we've heard from a number of observers about what's next for Iraq.

Ms. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Scholar, University of Maryland): We should pull out relatively rapidly whether it's 16 months or 24 months. But I should.

Mr. GEORGE MCGOVERN (Former Senator, Democrat, South Dakota): I'm not going to argue that six months is better than 16 months.

General JACK KEENE (Retired, US Army): But if you put General Odierno's plan on a table and Prime Minister Maliki and our new president and Ryan Crocker's, there's probably just a few months that would be separating them, I suspect.

SIEGEL: That was retired Army General Jack Keene and before him, former Senator George McGovern and University of Maryland's scholar Shibley Telhami, all of these interviews are at npr.org. We've heard opinions about President-elect Barack Obama's proposal to pull combat troops out in 16 months. We've also heard ideas about diplomacy. Shibley Telhami said the new president should lay out his vision for the entire Middle East before announcing his plan for Iraq. Peter Galbraith, who has worked closely with the Kurds, suggested a Dayton-style peace conference among Kurds, Sunnis and Shia, and we've heard predictions of what Iraq might become. Former Ambassador Kenneth Adelman told us that he thought Iraq would become something short of a full-blown democracy.

Mr. KENNETH ADELMAN (Former US Ambassador to United Nations): You have got to grade on the curve somewhat, and out of all the members of the Arab League today, not one of them is a properly functioning and responsive democracy. So if we get one that's way above the curve, that's pretty darn good.

SIEGEL: Well, today in our final conversation we'll hear from Iraq about the thinking there. And we are joined from Baghdad by Rend Al-Rahim, executive director of the Iraq Foundation. Rend Al-Rahim was Iraq's representative to the US after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Welcome to the program.

Ms. REND AL-RAHIM (Executive Director, Iraq Foundation, Iraq Representative to the US): Thank you.

SIEGEL: 16 months as a framework for withdrawal. From the Iraqi perspective, is it desirable, is it feasible?

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Well, speaking to a number of political leaders here, it seems to be that the timetable that's actually set out on the SOFA is much for realistic, much more feasible than the 16 months that President-elect Obama has suggested.

SIEGEL: We know we should say the sofa is the Status of Forces Agreement- SOFA.

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Indeed. And if the SOFA is signed, then the complete withdrawal of troops will happen by the end of 2011. I don't know if a President Obama will want to change that, but certainly on the Iraqi side it seems that they are quite happy with that timetable that's defined in the SOFA.

SIEGEL: The additional 18 months that the Status of Forces Agreement would countenance, that difference is very significant to Iraqis in Baghdad?

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Well, I think it is to Iraqi politicians, and I personally believe it is. And let me just outline three reasons why I think so. One of them is that the Iraqis Security Forces still need support and training in a number of areas. The other two issues, the other two reasons, are political. First of all, there is some doubt here about the cohesiveness of the ISF, the Iraqi Security Forces, as a national force that is politically neutral, that is actually a - protects the state and the Constitution as opposed to this party or that political party. There is a certain doubt about this. And secondly, that there are some political groups in the country who feel vulnerable, and they feel that a rapid disengagement of US forces is going to put them at risk. And they feel that the US presence here is a kind of buffer.

SIEGEL: There is an argument that has been made for the past couple of years that if Iraqis don't see a timetable for US withdrawal there is less impetus for them to solve these problems. And that when the US says we will pull out, they'll be greater pressure on Iraqis to address the very problems you're describing. Does that reasoning make any sense to you?

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Well, first of all it doesn't make any sense. There are lots of internal political issues that are brewing, the Iraqis had been able to solve some and not solve others, and I don't think that's contingent or determined by US presence or nonpresence. I think that actually a rapid US withdrawal will exacerbate the differences and will increase foreign pressure on political groups in Iraq, and therefore reduce the possibility of dialogue and consensus and negotiation.

SIEGEL: Apart from the quantity of US forces in Iraq, what do you think the mission of those forces should be? Should it be changed over the coming years?

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Actually, I mean I think this is the relevant question because right now I think there is a decreasing need for combat operations. What is needed now is much more stress on the political process. We still have not built a state in which everybody feels included, everybody feels there is an equal chance for them to play a role. The US military and civilian presence should focus more on providing that confidence building, the deterrence against internal conflict and to safeguarding the political process. We've got elections slated for January 31st, and there's a great fear that there is going to be violence. And a number of parties have said, well, the US should play a role in preventing violence and securing free and fair elections, and this should be the primary role of the US right now, whether it is political or military, that this is what they want to see US do it.

SIEGEL: But what might that actually translate to in terms of what US forces would do? What would be their stance in January that would help guarantee an election that's different from what they're doing right now?

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Robert, I don't see it only as a military operation. I think there has to be a political engagement, and the political and the military have to be married together. But there is a great deal, I think, that the United States can do in terms of giving sort of an arm's-length attention, making statements about the fact that the United States is interested in seeing free and fair elections in which there is no violence. That kind of attention to the political process is what is required.

SIEGEL: Rend Al-Rahim, I just have one other question for you which is, when you consider the coming provincial elections and then after that, I guess, you get parliamentary elections, and the drawdown of US combat troops, are you generally confident that the structure of Iraq's government, a national parliament, regional governors, political parties that seemed heavily identified by their religious sect or ethnicity, does it strike you as essentially stable? Do you just assume that five, 10 years from now this system will be in place? Or do you regard it as inherently fragile and unstable, and in great need of care and assistance to keep it standing?

Ms. AL-RAHIM: Robert, so long as the Iraqi political scene is dominated by political groups and factions that identify with a sect or an ethnicity, we will continue to have a fragile state. We need to create national politics, and I have to tell you that in the provincial elections that are coming up this is where the new parties are coming out. Most of them are running on national platforms as opposed to sectarian platforms. And by the way, this is why I think it's far more important for the United States and for an Obama administration to think about Iraq as a political issue rather than purely a military operation.

SIEGEL: Well, Rend Al-Rahim, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. AL-RAHIIM: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Rend Al-Rahim is the executive director of the Iraq Foundation. She is an American citizen and lives near Washington, DC, but she spoke to us today from Baghdad.

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