RACHEL MARTIN, host:
It's time know to get caught up on recent developments out of Iraq. We call it The Week in Iraq.
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MARTIN: Monday was Memorial Day. Senator John McCain invited fellow senator, Barack Obama, to come visit Iraq with him. The challenge came as McCain criticized Obama, saying he doesn't really grasp what's happening on the ground there. Obama has been to Iraq only once in 2006. Later in the week, Obama said he may go this summer, but not with McCain. He called McCain's invite a, quote, "political stunt."
A U.S. grand jury investigating the military-security firm Blackwater heard some high-profile testimony this week. Three Iraqis, including the father of a boy slain in a shooting involving Blackwater guards last year, came to America to testify. The question is whether the guards illegally shot up a Baghdad intersection. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died in that shooting.
Another setback in Sunni/Shia relations, Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc left negotiations with the Shiite-led government. They pulled out of the government in August, saying they were not getting enough say. Now they, say recent talks to rejoin aren't getting anywhere.
And world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, met in Sweden yesterday for a major conference on Iraq's economic future. The International Compact on Iraq is a U.N.-Iraq partnership that set goals for Iraq and is working to get other countries to help out. Let's take a closer look now with Howard LaFranchi. He's the diplomatic correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He himself has just returned from Iraq. Hey, Howard. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. HOWARD LAFRANCHI (Staff Writer, Christian Science Monitor): Well, good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Good morning. In your most recent piece out of Iraq, you wrote that the government is showing some signs of being one. What did you see on the ground that made you say that?
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Well, you see little things and bigger things, and I've been going to Iraq about once a year since the invasion, so since 2003, and what I noticed this time was some little things, like sidewalks being repaired, overpasses being repaired, painting being done. Now, that may not sound like much, but none of that was happening before. So I think that's something that at least people in the country notice. There are no more lines at gas stations. The government has worked out agreements with countries that refine oil and produce gasoline to get more gasoline in there, and so there are no more lines.
MARTIN: But while the day to day may have gotten better, security seems to be a little better than it was at least last year, there are now more concerns about corruption, I understand.
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Yeah, that - now, that was a theme this year that I hadn't heard so much, and it's hard to tell if, because security is better, people have more time to think about other things. And so now they're thinking about, well, why aren't other things getting better? For example electricity is as bad as always. And so they blame the government for why exactly, but from a full range of Iraqis, I heard deep concerns about corruption, that money was not - that money was coming in, because they know what the price of oil is, but they don't see it being spent where it needs to be.
MARTIN: And I mean, money is really what was at the crux of this conference that took place in Sweden, focused a lot on Iraq's debt. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was essentially asking his lenders to forgive Iraq's debt. Iraq is at least 67 billion dollars in debt. Much of that is from Saddam Hussein years, but his requests were denied, I understand.
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Well, yeah, what you've seen is that recently mostly Western countries have come forward and forgiven Iraq's debt. Just not too long ago, Russia forgave 13 billion dollars in debt. But it's the neighboring countries, the Sunni regimes right around Iraq, that are holding back. They - you mentioned earlier...
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Well, you mentioned earlier in your intro about the Sunni bloc that had said it was ready to rejoin the government, and are now deciding that it isn't, that it's not seeing progress. The Sunni neighbors who hold the debt, and most notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they want to see Sunnis back sharing power. They're fearful of this Shiite regime, and especially of the Shiite government that is so close to Iran. So, they want to see better - a better piece of the pie - a bigger piece of the pie for the Sunnis before they take this step.
MARTIN: Speaking of Iran, I mean, Iraq has been kind of this playing field where the U.S. and Iran have been going tit for tat in a lot of different ways. At this meeting, what was the dynamic between Iran's foreign minister and the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Well, it wasn't a very good one, the foreign minister, Mottaki, of Iran in giving a speech, blamed Iraq's problems on the United States, not naming the United States specifically but spoke of the occupiers. So it was pretty clear who he was referring to. And he spoke of repeated mistakes, policy mistakes that were at the root of Iraq's problems. And as he was saying that, cameras switched to Secretary Rice, showing her rolling her eyes, smirking. And so this didn't really set a very good tone for what possibly, with both of them being in the same conference, could have been an opportunity to at least shake hands, although Foreign Minister Mottaki noted that, as a Shiite Muslim, he doesn't normally shake a woman's hand.
MARTIN: Mm-hm. We're speaking with Howard LaFranchi. He's the diplomatic correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Howard, may I ask you a favor? May I ask you to just stay on the line? We have to take a quick break, but I do have one more question I'd like to put to you, if you would.
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Sure.
MARTIN: Stay with us. You're listening to the BPP from NPR News. We're going to talk about conclave, gaggle, conference, whatever you call it, Democratic insiders meeting this weekend to discuss what happens to all those Florida and Michigan delegates stripped by the DNC. Remember those? Pretty critical decision coming up this weekend. We'll hear what's going on. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Stay with us.
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MARTIN: Hey there. Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're finishing our conversation with Howard LaFranchi. He's the diplomatic correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He's just recently back from Iraq. I want to ask you, Howard, this meeting that took place in Sweden yesterday. This was a conference, a follow-up to the International Compact on Iraq, which was a U.N.-Iraq partnership, started a year ago, which set all these benchmarks for development in Iraq. I understand you weren't at the meeting, but from your reporting, have you been able to deduce how far those benchmarks have come?
Mr. LAFRANCHI: Well, they are both economic and political, and I would say probably that on the economic side, Iraq is making a little better progress. The Iraqis were able to tell the conference that, for example, they are getting better at spending their own money. They have money coming in from their oil revenue, and for example, just a couple of years ago, although they had a budget, they were only able to spend like 20 or 40 percent of the money they had budgeted. They just didn't have the administration or the ability to spend.
But they've bumped that up. They think that will improve to about 80 percent this year. So, services are getting back in gear. It's more on the political side where the problem is and where the stalling is. They just haven't worked out the power-sharing between the communities that would really allow sort of a breaking of the logjam and where the political progress could really get under way.
MARTIN: And they really have to include more Sunni participation if the central government is going to have any long-term power. Howard LaFranchi is the diplomatic correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Howard, thank you so much for sharing your reporting. We appreciate it.
Mr. LAFRANCHI: It's been a pleasure.
MARTIN: Take care.
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