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The War Over the War

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Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; 10:00 AM

Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan was online Tuesday, March 25 to discuss the latest developments in Iraq, and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

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Raghavan has reported from more than 50 countries and nine war zones in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the former Soviet Union and Central America. He started his career in 1992 freelancing from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He has won the George Polk Award, an Overseas Press Club Award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, among other prizes.

A transcript follows.

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Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi everyone, great to be here. We've had a very busy day in Iraq today. I'm looking forward to answering your questions.

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Winnipeg, Canada: The Guardian ran an article recently saying that the surge is on the point of collapse: apparently the militias have not been paid, and they are on the verge of abandoning their posts. Have you heard anything to this effect? Does this explain the increased violence recently?

washingtonpost.com: Sunni Forces Losing Patience With U.S. (Washington Post, Feb. 28)

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Winnipeg. This is a good answer to begin with. We wrote an article last month about the frustrations expressed by U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening groups. Many are former insurgents who have turned against Islamic extremists, and they are widely credited with helping bring down the violence. But in recent months, they've faced growing attacks, including several incidents where U.S. troops inadvertently killed some of their new allies. In some areas, they are not getting paid and have walked out on their jobs. I wouldn't say it's a sign that the surge is collapsing, but certainly it illustrates the strains in the movement. U.S. commanders are concerned that these groups might rejoin the insurgency. Anyway, you can read more at the link above.

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Peaks Island, Maine: In light of the Iraqi government's substantial oil revenues, what explains the reliance upon the American taxpayer to fund the Sunni security forces created by the U.S.?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Peaks Island, Maine. Sounds like a wonderful place to live. One reason why the U.S. military is financing the Sunni Awakening groups is simply because the Shiite-led Iraqi government is suspicious of these groups. Last year, these very groups were fighting the Iraqi government and the United States. Shiites in the government fear these groups could become anti-government militias once the Americans leave.

Still, about 20 percent to 30 percent are expected to join the Iraqi security forces, which means they will get paid by the Iraqis. The rest will be given municipal jobs and vocational training, although most Sunni fighters reject this and want to join the Iraqi security forces.

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Richmond, Va.: Speaking as a war opponent -- isn't the increased fighting in Basra now, between the various tribes and factions, a perfect example of the continuing civil war, and how it erupts if there are no outside forces to control it (in this case, when the British left)? With this in mind, how are we ever, ever going to get out of Iraq (will one test be how successful will be the Iraqi troops sent by Maliki to quell the disturbance in Basra)?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Richmond. Certainly, quelling the violence in Basra and restoring security will be a key test of the effectiveness of Maliki and the Iraqi government forces. It will also test the strength of Iraq's central government, and whether it can maintain the unity of Iraq.

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Richmond, Va.: Do you think it's a coincidence that the Iraqi forces are battling the Shiite armed groups not long after Vice President Cheney's visit? Do you think he leaned on Maliki a bit maybe to rein in the militias in the south? Thanks for your insights.

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Richmond/ No, I don't think there's any apparent coincidence. The Iraqi government long has tried to clean up Basra. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki replaced the police chief down there and brought in other senior ranking commanders. It's an important test for them, as I wrote above.

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Hartford, Conn.: hi Sudarsan. I guess my question is it seems we are 5 years too late. Too late with the right commander, the right ambassador, the right secretary of defense, the right army to fight an insurgency. More troops won't work, is it time to begin a phased withdrawal, and repatriate Iraqis to this country who worked with us?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Greetings, Hartford. Certainly I think that the United States should be doing more to repatriate Iraqis who've worked for them. I know countless Iraqi who lead double lives, who face certain death for their links to the United States.

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Norfolk, Va.: My brother is a Ranger in Iraq now (his third tour). He's very proud of what his unit has accomplished -- he says he sees the results on the ground. But his description of the progress is not reflected in media accounts (like the obsession with the death count). And he's not sitting in the Green Zone -- he's in the badlands. Do you sense frustration among the troops? Or do you just get press briefings while sipping coffee in the Green Zone?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Norfolk. No, I actually try to avoid the Green Zone, and spend most of my time in the so-called Red Zone, among Iraqis and on embeds with American soldiers. I have detected frustrations among the troops. Yet at the same time, I also have met soldiers who are very proud to be in Iraq and feel like they are making a difference. I admire the courage of every U.S. serviceman or woman who do tours here, especially the ones who've done multiple tours.

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Williamsburg, Va.: Sir, thank you for taking my question. What is one of the more misunderstood topics/items being reported from Iraq?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Williamsburg. This is a complex war. I've noticed that many readers seem to believe that the surge has led to a drop in violence purely because of the influx of roughly 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. That's not entirely true. There are two other key factors: the Sunni Awakening movement, which was not created by the United States but was later harnessed by U.S. commanders, and Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's cease-fire, imposed last August.

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Yorktown, Va.: Sudarsan! If you're looking to invest in Iraq, what are good industries to get into? Any promising new companies?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Yorktown. I'd recommend companies that make blast walls.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I know this is all speculative, but to what degree do you see the absence of foreign troops depressing the strengths of groups seeking their ouster and how much will deflating them on this issue minimize their impact? To what degree do you see the Iraqi government being able to create a police-military force that will be able to handle the security and criminal threats within Iraq in the absence of foreign troops?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hello Harrisburg. Let me tell you what many ordinary Iraqis think. For now, they see U.S. troops as the best means of security; this doesn't mean that they like the U.S. occupation, but rather that they feel the alternative could be worse. There's little confidence in the government or its security forces. At the same time, I am noticing the Iraqis standing up more in some areas. In Baghdad, Iraqis control virtually all the checkpoints -- backed, of course, by U.S. troops.

But you're right, the million-dollar question on the minds of many Iraqis is, what will happen when U.S. troops leave?

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Marina Del Rey, Calif.: I understand your points about the Sunni Awakening and Moqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire, but here in the U.S. I would estimate that in about 95 percent of the accounts, the credit is being given solely to the surge. Why is this happening and what are the potential pitfalls of this interpretation?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Marina Del Rey. As I said earlier, I think this is one of more misunderstood aspects of the war. I'm not sure why this is happening. We and other media report regularly that there are three pillars propping up the decrease in violence levels.

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Shanghai, China: The BBC has been talking about a poll it did that seems to show that Iraqis feel a bit better about the situation in their country. But I'm really unclear about how to interpret the reports. Because they are accompanied by reports about how bad the situation is.

Is the situation in Iraq too complex to truly measure how people feel? You are on the ground there. What is your opinion?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hello Shanghai. I do think many Iraqis feel a bit better about their situation, although that varies by location. For instance, Iraqis we've interviewed in Basra today feel utterly hopeless. There's a saying in Iraq: "Fever is better than death." Many Iraqis are enjoying a bit more freedom from the decrease in violence levels, but they are far from living a normal life. There's still plenty of fear and apprehension of the future.

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Washington: So, is Zobarie the poster-child for how "Iraqis stand up, so the U.S. can stand down"? The surge was supposed to create stability to provide time for democratic reforms to take hold. Is there a successful reformer in Iraq where things have calmed a bit, or is Zobarie the model character?

washingtonpost.com: In Fallujah, Peace Through Brute Strength (Washington Post, March 24)

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Washington. We've yet to see a successful reformer in Iraq. There are certainly men in Iraq who can rise to the occasion, but there are also plenty of other men, backed by militias, who crave power and live by ancient rules drawn from fear, respect and violence.

For now we're seeing the United States increasingly depending on men like Zobaie, molded from dictatorship and insurgency, to bring order and stability to Iraq.

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Oakland, Pa.: Mr. Raghavan, thank you for taking questions. Both leading Democratic candidates for president have advocated a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops if they are elected; this could be completed by the spring of 2010, by some estimates. In your view, what would this decision mean to the people of Iraq? Would there be any way for sectarian strife and ethnic cleansing to ensue? I want to see our troops come home, but the possibility of genocide on an epic scale in Iraq is a fear our country should have, in my view.

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Oakland. When I speak with Iraqi politicians, I get a mixed message. Some want U.S. troops to play a role in Iraq for many years to come. Withdrawing too quickly could mean a brutal civil war and instability in the entire Middle East.

Other politicians believe that the U.S. needs to leave, and allow the Iraqis to determine their own destiny. Once U.S. troops leave, they say, Iraqis will come to terms with their differences and move forward.

I don't know the answer. This place is so complex that I have given up predicting the tea leaves of Iraq.

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Sudarsan Raghavan: Thanks everyone for your wonderful questions. One of the joys of writing for The Washington Post is that I can interact with highly informed readers. All the best, and looking forward to the next time. Cheers.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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