The War Over the War

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, March 27, 2007; 12:00 PM

The transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War

Chandrasekaran, the author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," is spending this year on a special assignment focused on chronicling U.S. government efforts to stabilize Iraq.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Hello everyone. Great to be back for another of our weekly War Over The War chats. Lots of good questions here. I'll start banging out some answers.... Feel free to toss more my way.

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Arlington, Va.: From the way the Bush administration has described the surge, it seems to be going much better than anyone ever expected. Things certainly are looking up. Are the troops excited that we will soon declare victory and ship them home?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I think most troops there are under no illusions that they're going to be heading home anytime soon. While the "surge" may be showing some signs of progress -- violence has declined in some neighborhoods in Baghdad in recent weeks -- it's still too early to say with any certainty that the new strategy is working. Even Bush administration officials acknowledge that it's too early to make a clear determination. And if the surge is to work, the forces that are there, and the additional forces flowing into Iraq over the coming weeks, will need to be there for many more months. This isn't going to be a quick mop-up operation.

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Florissant, Mo.: Hey, Rajiv. I've asked this question in a variety of fora and can't get a reply -- probably because it's a crazy thought. Might things in Iraq get so bad that the U.S. might consider putting its eggs in the Sadr's Mahdi army basket? He has the forces and discipline to control the country, plus he's a Shiite and would be hostile to the al-Qaeda Sunni forces -- and al-Qaeda is the name of the game, isn't it? It was in Afghanistan.

washingtonpost.com: Sadr City an Enclave of Normalcy in Fearful Baghdad (Post, March 27)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's certainly not the craziest thing I've heard.
First off, make sure to read my colleague Sudarsan's story from Sadr City in today's Post. The link is above.
The one thing about Sadr that might appeal to the United States is that he's a nationalist. He's not a fan of the federalist structure sought by the Kurds and some other Shiite politicians. And, until recently, he's sought to create distance between himself and Iran. That said, he's become much closer to Iran in recent months. And, lest we forget, he's a mercurial fellow who is virulently anti-American. The biggest impediment to striking a deal with him may well be his reluctance to talk to the United States government.

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Bethesda, Md.: I heard that the new U.S. embassy over in Iraq is a massive complex. Is that correct? Is it done?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Massive is right. This is what my colleague Elizabeth Williamson recently wrote:
"According to a State Department count, about 1,000 federal employees report to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, not including hundreds of private contractors. State Department personnel are assigned to roughly half the slots in Baghdad, and the rest are reserved for an array of agencies, including about 90 from the Justice Department, 20 from the Department of Homeland Security, and four each from the Commerce Department and the Transportation Department. They are needed, officials say, to rebuild transit and mail services, to assist small businesses, to advise politicians and peasants."
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/01/AR2007030101497.html

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washingtonpost.com: How Much Embassy Is Too Much? (Post, March 2)

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Cincinnati, Ohio: What changes, if any, in approach or strategy will new ambassador Crocker bring? How do you assess Khalilzad's overall performance?

washingtonpost.com: New Ambassador Skips Pomp and Heads to Iraq (Post, March 27)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Crocker is a talented diplomat who has certainly spent a lot of time in the Middle East. He's also no stranger to conflict zones.
I'm not expecting him to engage in huge policy shifts. While the ambassador in Baghdad has a degree of latitude to set policy, the big decisions are still made back in Washington. I think the biggest difference may well be that he's a new guy on the scene. After a while, relations between Iraqis and American diplomats begin to fray. It's a natural product of the tension inherent in such relationships. That's what happened, to a degree, with Khalilzad. Crocker comes in with a largely clean slate and that will be helpful to him and to the U.S. government.
All that said, Crocker was one of the principal architects of the Iraqi Governing Council, the 25-member body that served under Ambassador L. Paul Bremer during the 15-month occupation. The formation of the Governing Council meant that the United States was not going to hand over power to Iraqi political leaders who had been in exile -- many of whom hold senior positions in the current government. It remains to be seen whether any of them are still sore with Crocker for his decisions back then.

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Trend in violence: Rajiv: It appears from the descriptions I've read of the recent violence in Iraq that up until the past few days, most of the attacks were on Shiites, leading us to believe that the Shiite militia had gone quiet during the "surge." Now we've seen Shiite attacks again in the past day or so. Should we be concerned that the violence is ready to increase again with the Shiites going back into action?

washingtonpost.com: Two Truck Bombs Explode in Iraqi Markets (Post, March 27)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: We have seen a notable decline in Shiite militia violence over the past several weeks. (Some have speculated that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has cut a deal with Moqtada Al-Sadr.) But if Sunni insurgent attacks on Shiite civilians continues at the current level, it will be difficult for Sadr and other militia leaders to rein in their forces. The mortar attacks on Sunni neighborhoods are probably more a reflection of the frustration of ordinary Shiites (many of whom are well-armed) rather than a concerted militia-led retribution campaign. If, however, U.S. and Iraqi forces are not able to bring down the level of violence directed at Shiite civilians, expect to see an increase in the extra-judicial killings of Sunni civilians conducted by Shiite militias.

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Reading, Mass.: Do the political players on either side have any real control of the Sunni insurgents/Shia militias? Do you feel there is any possibility of the Sunni forces capitulating to a Shia-led Iraq?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I believe there is far more command and control on the Shiite side. All you need to do is look at Sadr City today -- the fact that there are not thousands of armed young men walking the streets suggests that Sadr and other militia leaders are able to exert influence over their followers.
On the Sunni side, the situation is far more fragmented. Sunni tribal and religious leaders may hold sway over fighters in their neighborhoods and towns, but their ability to influence the actions of Sunni insurgents across the country is very limited.
Many Sunnis recognize that Iraq will be a Shiite-led country for the foreseeable future. As a minority, they want to ensure they their rights will be protected, hence their desire to see changes to the de-Baathification policy, the constitution, etc.
But there is also a smaller group of hardliners who see no room for compromise. They believe that through violence, the Sunnis will once again be able to rule the country. I don't see them capitulating anytime soon.

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Washington: Hi Rajiv. I've just ordered and am looking forward to reading your book. I also was intrigued by the review of Martha Raffad's book, the "Long Road Home," which details the ambush that Casey Sheehan died in. Are you reading the new books, and if so, which ones are must-reads?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The author's name is Martha Raddatz and I've heard wonderful things about her book. I have a copy and I plan to read it after I finish the advance edition of Ali Allawi's "The Occupation of Iraq." If you haven't read the "Assassin's Gate" and "Fisaco," I urge you to pick up both of them too.

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New York City: Rajiv -- why even entertain such cynical, smart-aleck questions like from Arlington? The level of outrageous animosity and hostility agains the President of the United States of America, and the United States Department of Defense is sickening. For those who are intellectually challanged and cannot comprehend the enormously important task at hand in Iraq, and the totally disastrous and pro-terrorist effect of "bringing them home now" would have, is it not your duty to report all the facts Rajiv? The American people only believe what they see on TV and read on the front page -- so what about the stories of heroism by our troops? Bravery? And the opening of schools and the relative peace in most of Iraq? Do you not have an obligation to report that as well?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: We do report on the heroism and bravery of the troops serving in Iraq. I commend to you the articles written by Steve Fainaru and, more recently, by Joshua Partlow, who has been embedded with various military units in Iraq. But there are only so many stories we can write about the opening of yet another school. And when it's not safe enough for reporters to drive from Baghdad to the provinces where those schools are opening, is that really a success?
Yes, a lot of Iraq is peaceful. But Baghdad, the capital, a city of 6 million people, is not. And Baghdad is the center of gravity in Iraq. Even the White House acknowledges that -- that's why more troops are headed there. If car bombs were going off in Washington every few days, should reporters travel to Iowa to write about how peaceful it is over there?

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San Francisco: Violence is up outside Baghdad. There aren't enough U.S. troops to secure the whole country, so if we concentrate in Baghdad, trouble pops up somewhere else.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's the Whack-A-Mole nature of the insurgency and our efforts to deal with it.

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Richmond, Va.: Do you have a sense of how effective the new counterinsurgency strategy under General Petraus is?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Come back next week and ask this to Tom Ricks. He's the expert on this subject.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: What is the state of President Talabani's health and what is he doing? Jon Anderson, in a Feb. 5 article in The New Yorker, described Talabani as a major behind-the-scenes player in arranging for oil contracts that assume continued security provided by American troops. I don't like to be conspiratorial, but am led to wonder if there is a Bush-Cheney commitment to Talabani and his oil-interested collaborators that might be important in their insistence that troops cannot and should not be withdrawn from Iraq.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: President Talabani is doing much better. He left the hospital in Amman last week and returned to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. I'm not aware of his role in securing oil contracts, but he, like other Kurdish leaders, want the United States to provide the Kurds with a security guarantee. They've made little secret of their desire to have American troops based in Kurdistan.

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Austin, Texas: Lets say the "surge" works and we get some form of stability in Iraq. Isn't the most likely outcome, based on facts on the ground, that Iraq becomes a government friendly to Iran, with a Shiite majority and Islamic rule? How is this helpful or worth dieing for?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That's a very real possibility, although President Bush's national security team is hopeful that the surge will improve security and, as a consequence, lead Shiites and Sunnis to make political compromises. If that happens, the team believes that a moderate Iraqi government would take shape. Such a government, the president's team hopes, would not be too friendly with Iran. But there are many others who question whether any of this is possible. They note that the genie of sectarianism is out of the bottle and it's going to be almost impossible to jam it back in.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for all the great questions. Sorry I didn't have time to get to more. Come back next Tuesday at noon, when Tom Ricks will take your questions. I'll be back in three weeks.

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