U.S. departure from Iraq
With the pullout of U.S. combat units completed, many Iraqis, even those who deplored the presence of foreign troops, are "fearful about what happens" if the U.S. withdraws completely next year as planned, says
A. It really doesn't. A lot of that is because it isn't a development that has had much of an impact on the ground. Some have called it a "rebranding" of the conflict, and there is some truth to that. What we've got left are fifty thousand other troops, a substantial number, and a lot of those are actually combat troops. Any brigade here is ready, equipped, and trained for combat. It's just that the mission is changing. So with that many troops on the ground, the latest withdrawals really don't have that much of an impact, particularly since we haven't been seeing
Q. Are Americans regarded as friends or enemies? Are people happy to see the Americans out of
A. It's a love-hate relationship that, right now, is turning into a feeling almost of abandonment. Even Iraqis who have absolutely despised the thought of a presence of a large number of foreign troops here are quite nervous, quite fearful about what happens if they pull out next year. It's something that I hear constantly in the streets, when I stop to talk to people, when I go to the sites of these attacks. When I talk to political leaders, there is quite a lot of apprehension about what happens when there is no big U.S. presence here and
A. Everything ends next year, so it really all has to be negotiated. The commanding general in charge of training Iraqi forces told me they are in the midst of negotiating an agreement to allow
Q. When terrorist attacks occur and hundreds of people get killed or wounded, is this regarded by Iraqis as comparable to another day of car crashes in
A. We might think so, because on the surface, life continues on -- people go to work, they open up their shops just hours after an explosion on their street, people send their kids to school. But it has had a significant effect in terms of human investment. Those Iraqis -- many of them middle class, a lot of the engineers, the doctors, the professionals needed to rebuild
Q. How do you feel when you walk on the street? Do you worry a lot?
A. It's like being a teenager -- I'm not allowed to go out on the street on my own. When I'm out on the streets, there's still obviously some danger, but I do have my Iraqi staff, one or two of them with me at all times. The prevailing feeling is uncertainty. When I go grocery shopping, the shops are full of people. They're not letting these events deter them from going out. There are new clothing stores, there are new stores selling electronics, but this is all small investment -- you don't see the big things happening. And you don't see a lot of faith in a near-term optimistic future. People pretty much think it'll get better, but it'll take a long time. A long time means a decade, perhaps. People aren't really thinking it's going to get better in the new year or two years from now.
Q. Why can't the Iraqis get electricity working? I gather this is a major complaint.
A. Most of us do not completely understand why it is there is still no electricity. Officials will tell you that it's because there is a greatly increased demand -- there are more air conditioners and other appliances. Those attacks we saw during the height of the insurgency, on refineries, on oil installations have not been repaired. Everything is on hold, waiting for those billions of dollars in investment to come in. That will happen, but it will take a long time.
And there is all this corruption. Corruption here is at the basis of almost everything. If you talk to Iraqis, they're more worried about corruption than they are about terrorism. Certainly that's a lot of the reason why a lot of money that is to be spent on things like electricity has seemed to have gone astray. And it's part of the reason why the infrastructure, seven years on, is still in such bad shape. Here in
Q. The corruption is among officials? Money is allocated to building up an electrical infrastructure, for instance, and somehow the money gets diverted?
A. It's as blatant as government officials, deputy ministers, directors of departments stuffing cash into their suitcases and leaving the country and as prevalent as bribes paid on contracts. On a day-to-day level, it's very hard for anybody here to get anything done unless they pay a bribe, and that includes getting documents that you need from any government department, that includes getting an electricity meter installed so you can get city power in less than a week, instead of six months. You pretty much pay anybody to do anything here and that itself has a very destabilizing effect.
Q. There has been a stalemate between the top political contenders,
A. Almost anything is the short answer, which is why this is so fascinating. It's fascinating because it's terribly important not just in the national sense, but in the regional sense. But it's also endlessly fascinating because if you look at the shifts in political alliances, you see people who started off saying that they would never have anything to do with some of the other political leaders now saying there are no red lines. We essentially see the same players we've had throughout this war. We've got Prime Minister
The problem is that Iraqis aren't used to compromise and almost six months later, that's what we're seeing: Nobody is compromising. Everyone wants to be prime minister. One of the things suggested that would be backed by
Q. So you can't really predict, then, who will emerge as the prime minister unless they work out this new superstructure?
A. I'm not discounting Maliki. The thing with Maliki is that he aligned himself with the other major Shiite players. They have proposed a series of measures that will limit his power. The Sadrists will not support him as prime minister because he sent the Iraqi army into
But whatever way you cut it, Maliki remains a key politician simply because he has support on the street. It's entirely unclear as to whether Allawi will back down or whether Maliki will accept a reduced role as prime minister, and agree to have his power curtailed. We keep thinking that perhaps there's a lot going on beneath the surface, but apparently there isn't. It is what it is. It's stalled. There's talk about what to do, but nothing's been established yet.
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