The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, May 20, 2008 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, May 20 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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DeYoung, author of " Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," is senior diplomatic correspondent and an associate editor of The Washington Post.


Karen DeYoung: Good afternoon. A number of good questions; let me quickly read through them and get started.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Ms. DeYoung, good afternoon and thank you for doing this chat. Can you provide some background on what news reports describe as the latest Iraqi Army offensive in Sadr City? Reports of earlier fighting there left the impression that Americans were bearing the brunt and encountering fierce resistance. Is either true right now? And what do you think is the objective the Iraqi government is striving for?

Karen DeYoung: As of this morning, there seems to be a new Iraqi military operation underway. U.S. military overnight opened a gap in the concrete wall they had erected across part of Sadr City and this morning several thousand Iraqi troops, with tanks and armored vehicles and on foot, went in and took up positions -- so far without incident. It appears that this is part of the cease-fire agreement reached over the weekend between the Sadrists and the Maliki government. One of the Sadrist conditions is that it would be Iraqi troops only -- no Americans. Right now, it appears the Americans are staying out, except for some air cover and certainly whatever technological intelligence they can provide. The militia fighters are still there but apparently not shooting ... for the moment things seem quiet.

_______________________ Iraqi Troops Enter Baghdad's Shiite Stronghold (AP, May 20)


New York: Karen, I'm posting early because of travel -- what's the status of all those refugees the Iraqi government was inviting back? Wouldn't millions of returning Iraqis cause chaos and strain the infrastructure as they try to return to their homes or try to get work? I often wonder what is in store for them. Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: Some of the internally-displaced people have started to trickle back. A plan late last fall for the government to provide transport and an aid stipend to refugees in Syria and Jordan -- which few took advantage of -- seems to have stalled. The U.N. and U.S. have both advised discouraging returns until the government gets organized to provide housing -- many of their residences, particularly those of fleeing Sunnis, are now occupied by Shiites -- and jobs and a peaceful environment can be assured. The U.S. military is afraid that millions of Iraqis returning to resume their lives could lead to a resumption of major violence at this time.


New York: Karen, this is not an Iraq question, but you're the person to ask -- is Colin Powell advising John McCain or showing any interest at all in the presidential race? It's hard to believe he would sit on the sidelines. Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: Powell has said he has spoken with both McCain and Obama. He says he's watching carefully but has not yet endorsed anyone.


Pittsburgh: My son, an Army officer, and many other Republican military personnel prefer Ron Paul for president. Given that Paul is against the war in Iraq, shouldn't this make a major statement to those who want to remain in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: Not unless a lot of them wanted to go on the record and publicly proclaim a preference.


Raleigh, N.C.: Where are Iraqis allowed to seek refuge from the fighting in their country? Are there U.N.-sponsored refugee camps?

Karen DeYoung: There are a few internal camps, but most who have fled have either moved in with family in less violent areas or have left the country.


Freising, Germany: Now that Iran has called off talks with U.S. about Iraq, what is the current situation between Iran and Iraq? I'd read recently that the relations between Iran and Iraq were deteriorating, and that Baghdad would investigate how Iranian-made weapons arrived in Iraq; at the same time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made an unprecedented visit to Baghdad.

Karen DeYoung: The Ahmadinejad visit was several months ago -- at the time, the Bush administration kept its mouth shut, saying that it understands Iran and Iraq are neighbors, with many longstanding personal, religious and economic ties, and that they should have a neighborly relationship. More recently, especially since renewed mortar attacks on the Green Zone and the fighting in Basra and Baghdad, the U.S. has said it can prove stepped-up Iranian involvement in the fighting. U.S. has said it has a lot of evidence, but a promised public presentation has yet to materialize. But the Maliki government -- most certainly with U.S. encouragement -- issued a public statement of concern about Iranian activities and an official delegation went to Tehran to discuss. That was a couple of weeks ago -- nothing new since then.


Hartford, Conn.: Hi Karen. Maybe it's me, but it seems much quieter these past couple of weeks violence-wise. Am I correct? If a vote were taken today, do you think the majority of Iraqis would want the U.S. to stay or to leave? My understanding is that they want us to stay.

Karen DeYoung: From my own limited conversations with Iraqis and a lot of reading, I think they want both. They don't like what they consider a military occupation, especially by a non-Islamic, non-Arab army. They are also very scared of the violence that ravaged the country last year and is still at a significant, although diminished, level. Many don't trust their own government. So they want the Americans to stay until they're certain the violence is over, and the government behaves more competently and is less corrupt.


Raleigh, N.C.: My local paper, the News & Observer, had an article about Blackwater in the Sunday paper. How is Blackwater continuing to survive and even thrive? Were they the victims of coincidence and bad publicity? Is it Erik Prince's ties to the right that keeps the contracts coming? Is it simply that the government's missions and our lack of capability to staff those missions require compromises? Finally, in light of the rise of Blackwater and other mercenary companies, what do you think of the new GI Bill? Blackwater survives rough time (News and Observer, May 18)

Karen DeYoung: A lot of questions there. A basic update -- the FBI and Justice Departments are supposedly still investigating the Blackwater shooting deaths of Iraqis last Sept. 16. Nobody's been charged, and they're still having difficulty figuring out what the applicable U.S. laws would be, if any. Meanwhile, the State Department has implemented a new system to keep watch on and rein in its security contractors in Iraq and there have been no significant new incidents reported. Blackwater is currently in the second year of a five-year contract. It rolls over annually, and State's position is that until there is some action in the Justice/FBI investigation they have no legal reason to cancel the contract. Plus, they'd have a hard time replacing Blackwater -- which does all the U.S. diplomatic protection in Baghdad (as well as several other places) -- on short notice.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Ms. DeYoung, thanks to you and your colleagues for continuing your Iraq coverage. While so much of the mainstream media moves on to the election and the economy, The Washington Post seems intent on staying with this story. I only can imagine the "discussions" with your editors about it. That said, I do see less coverage now then I did a year ago. Are your editors winning those arguments? Is Iraq really coming around, or are we as a nation suffering Iraq Fatigue? I suspect it's portions of all three, but I'd like your take.

Karen DeYoung: Editors here are fully on board with our continued coverage of Iraq--it is a hugely expensive operation (by far our largest bureau with three full-time U.S. correspondents and a number of Iraqi journalists, security, housing, etc. etc.)and of course still a risky one for those on the ground. One of our Iraqi correspondents was killed by a sniper several months ago. But I see no sign of faltering commitment. I don't think there is less coverage -- perhaps fewer daily stories reflecting fewer violent incidents that have to be covered. But that gives more time and opportunity for reporters to get out of the office and give more depth to their stories, which is what I think the coverage shows they've been doing.


Free Union, Va.: Ms DeYoung, thanks for doing these chats. Has Sen. McCain or anyone else provided any vision of intermediate steps leading to the eradication of al-Qaeda in Iraq by 2013? Is this the purely political nonsense it seems to be, or is there an analytical basis? It goes without saying that administration analyses of Iraq have been poor, and there's no reason to think they're doing any better -- but I'm trying to give McCain the benefit of the doubt.

Karen DeYoung: McCain's 2013 speech was curious in that it outlined a wish list of where he "hoped" to be after a first term, but didn't say how he proposed to get there. He projected the war would be won, and most troops would be home. To my knowledge, the Iraq strategy he has outlined in the past is based on saying that the current strategy is succeeding and should be continued.


Fairfax, Va.: Phillip Carter, who writes the Post's new Intel Dump blog, wrote last fall that "the few Sunnis who remain in Baghdad do so under the protection of U.S. military forces, secured by a labyrinth of concrete blast walls, checkpoints, and security bases." Is this for real? Are there really so few Sunnis in Baghdad?

Karen DeYoung: Certainly most of those who have left Baghdad have been Sunnis. Shiite militias last year took over a number of formerly Sunni neighborhoods. I did a story about this, I think last December, that included maps comparing the sectarian breakdown of the city between early 2006 and late 2007 -- fewer mixed neighborhoods, fewer Sunni-majority neighborhoods, a lot more Shiite-only neighborhoods. The surge, which moved large numbers of U.S. troops into Baghdad neighborhoods, was not designed to reverse this cleansing but basically to put up walls and a U.S. military presence to stop the killing while leaving everything else in place. Look at the answer above re refugees ... nobody has done much to reverse it.


Kingston, Ontario: Karen: Please could you give an update on events in Basra? Has the Baghdad government succeeded in establishing its authority yet?

Karen DeYoung: Basra apparently is pretty quiet. The New York Times had a story from there a week or so ago. Thousands of Iraqi troops have moved into neighborhoods -- although pockets of resistance remain. Reportedly, stores have reopened and people are back on the streets conducting some semblance of normal life. Again, however, the militias are largely still there so it remains tenuous. The Maliki government has promised to pour about $150 million into the city but as far as I know it hasn't gotten there yet.


New York: Given that the administration constantly sounds the alarm about Iran messing about in Iraq, what is it doing about stopping the training and arming of the militias? Seems like we hear a lot of complaining, but no plans for stopping what comes across the borders. What's going on, aside from not talking to Iran? Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: There are some voices here who advocate air strikes against alleged training camps inside Iran, but so far that view has not won out. I'm sure there are intel and perhaps special forces assets inside, and some attempts to be more vigilant on the border. There have been attempts (see answer above) to get the Maliki government to be more forceful in protesting to Iran. The U.S. military keeps saying it is about to show the world new proof of Iranian interference, but hasn't done so yet. The U.S. also says it wants to continue the three-way dialogue (Iraq, Iran, U.S.) started last year in Baghdad (limited to Iraq matters) but the Iranians have said it's not a good time. That's about it.


New Hampshire: Good afternoon Karen and thanks for taking my question. How in the world is it possible that the U.S. sniper in Iraq who defiled a Koran and used it for target practice was sent home to America and separated from his unit? Seems to me as though he was "rewarded" for a terrible act, rather than punished. U.S. general apologizes for Quran shooting (AP, May 19)

Karen DeYoung: We don't know yet what has happened to that particular soldier, other than that he was removed from Iraq -- I suspect for his own safety rather than as a prelude to "punishment." This is an incredibly incendiary situation -- the U.S. military has fallen all over itself with public apologies, and Bush spoke to Maliki about it yesterday.


Bethesda, Md.: Karen, I often think how much better a world it would be if Powell had run in 2000 and won. Did you ever work for/with him? How much access did he allow you for the biography?

Karen DeYoung: As I noted in the book's Acknowledgments, I did a series of formal interviews with Powell over a two-year, and his answers to questions I asked were used in the book. (There's some updated stuff in the paperback, which came out last November.) He also authorized the National Defense University to give me access to his unclassified papers stored there. No other relationship.


West Orange, N.J.: Where is Moqtada? In 2003, Bremer wanted to arrest him and failed. Since then, he has been in semi-hiding. Presumably the U.S. could find him if it wished; presumably too, Sunni extremists could cause chaos and destroy the government by assassinating him and blaming the deed on the U.S. Might he in fact be in quasi "protective custody" with U.S. consent? Does he ever grant real in-person interviews, or simply communiques?

Karen DeYoung: U.S. officials believe Sadr is still in Iran, where he's been for a long time -- unclear whether he's worried about his security, undertaking religious studies, being kept semi-hostage, or just likes it there. I haven't seen any interviews; statements in his name are regularly issued in Baghdad. Both the Maliki and U.S. governments recognize he wields enormous power among his substantial number of followers and would far rather have him inside the tent than outside. That's why they make a point of differentiating between the so-called "Special Groups" they say are renegades from Sadr's Mahdi Army, and the bulk of the militia members, and keep trying to make deals with them.


San Clemente, Calif.: I remember when a few of what to the Western eye seemed like pretty innocent political cartoons depicting the profit Mohammad set off waves of violence in the Muslim world. Do you think that the relatively quick reaction of U.S. authorities to an American soldier's use of a Quran for target practice may have averted a similar situation? Or is it still too early to tell?

The Bush administration today told the Maliki Government that the soldier, an Army sniper, would be prosecuted. What law was broken, and how would that go over with our troops? Seems one could make the argument that multiple long-term deployments into a stressful situation, poor leadership and a military culture that downplays mental health issues might be much more to blame than an individual soldier.

Karen DeYoung: Seems to me to have been an incredibly stupid thing to do, and you're right, it reflects poorly on command. Think how many Christians would react if they heard someone on the other side was similarly using the Bible. Or vis a vis the cartoons, making fun of Jesus. That being said, I don't think either government wants this to blow up. I hadn't heard about the administration saying the soldier would be "prosecuted." Will check it out.


Iran next: Karen, today the Israeli newspapers are saying that the Bush/McCain team wants to attack Iran before the year is out. How much credence do you give these reports? Why has Bush paid two visits to a weak Olmert this year alone?

Karen DeYoung: This was a report that apparently originated on the Israeli Army Radio, quoting an unnamed official supposedly present at Bush-Olmert talks. It sounds a little garbled and blown out of proportion to me. I'm sure there are some at high levels within the administration who advocate attacking Iran. On the other hand, both Gates and Rice are clearly opposed to it and have prevailed so far. First Bush visit was to give a jolt to faltering peace talks. Second was to bask in the glow of Israel's 60th birthday celebrations. Both were doubtless more fun than staying in Washington is for Bush these days. Both were also to visit Arab leaders to try and get them to produce more oil and be nicer to Iraq -- without much success on either count.


Washington: Not a trick question, but when does Iraqi law begin to take permanent effect? That is, when do their laws take precedence over U.S. military activities (for example, detention of "suspects" in cases where they say the person should be released and we say they should be detained).

Karen DeYoung: Iraq is a sovereign country and it's laws rule. But ... until the end of December, the U.S. military is there under a United Nations mandate that allows it to carry out security functions without seeking Iraqi permission. The mandate expires on Dec. 31 and the Bush administration is currently negotiating a new bilateral arrangement with Iraq to take effect in January. Among the many controversies -- U.S. wants to retain the right to conduct its own military operations, to detain Iraqi citizens, and to maintain immunity from Iraqi laws for contractors. Iraq's public position -- as expressed to me by their foreign minister in an interview last month -- is that none of these things are acceptable. We'll see where the negotiations go ... the agreement is supposed to be signed by July 31.


Karen DeYoung: So many good questions, so little time. Sorry I didn't get to all of them, but come back next time.


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