The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, July 15, 2008 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, July 15 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: Welcome. Lots of questions here about whether Iraq is demanding a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, status of forces agreement, etc. I'll try to explain.


San Diego: Why did negotiations for the status of forces agreement collapse? Was it because of an impasse, a lack of sufficient time/will, etc.? Also, is the Iraqi government planning to recess for the month of August, as it did last year? Was that also a factor?

Karen DeYoung: The negotiations didn't collapse. What started in March were bilateral negotiations over two separate documents--a status of forces agreement to provide a legal framework for U.S. military presence and activities in Iraq, and a "strategic framework agreement" that would set a course for a long-term economic, political, cultural and security relationship between Iraq and the United States. The strategic framework negotiating teams have been moving ahead fairly steadily. The SOFA negotiating teams got deeply bogged down by the end of May, a situation that got even more difficult when the terms of a U.S. draft proposal were leaked. It basically allowed U.S. military to continue doing what it has been doing--conducting military operations and detaining Iraqi civilians when and where it wanted, without asking Iraqi permission. Also gave blanket immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law for U.S. military, DOD personnel, and U.S. DOD security contractors. Iraqis balked at this as an infringement on their sovereignty--not least because it's a political hot potato and elections are pending. Particularly sensitive is a "timeline" for withdrawal. To make a long story short, it was decided last month not to go for the full monty on a SOFA, but to do what the military calls a "temporary operating protocol" that will cover the most urgent needs of the military for the next year or so, while continuing to talk about the long-term SOFA. They have papered over the operations and detainee control issues by forming a joint high level U.S.-Iraq committee that has titular control over both, and the Americans have agreed to include a "time horizon" for withdrawal...a kind of notional date when they'll withdraw from more visible positions in Iraqi cities, etc., assuming all is calm.


Karen DeYoung: Excuse the delay in the above long answer. I got called away for a few minutes in mid-typing. Will go on a bit after time limit to get to your questions.


Princeton, N.J.: Two similar questions: First, are they any plans to get the 5 million displaced persons in and out of Iraq back to their homes, particularly if they came from an ethnically cleansed area such as Baghdad or Kirkuk? Based on the history of civil strife from the 30 years war to Bosnia, I believe there is a high probability that many (more than 2 million) will have to die before stability can be achieved. Even if you only believe there is just a possibility of such a catastrophe, should we have some plans to deal with it? Do we?

Karen DeYoung: Little progress made on the refugee issue. The International Crisis Group this week published a lengthy report on refugees, which you can find on their site. It calls on the Iraqi government--which has said a lot but done little--to spend some of their oil surplus on helping those running out of money in Syria and Jordan. And calls on the international community to start paying more attention. Those relative few (out of about 5 million displaced within and outside Iraq) who have returned home have done so largely because they've run out of resources to stay away.


Minneapolis: What's going to keep Afghanistan from becoming the next Iraq (though they've had years to regroup and learn our modus operandi), and what will prevent Iraq from becoming the next Lebanon? (I don't see how pullout/redeployment solves any of our problems, both from a counterinsurgency standpoint and from a logistical one (i.e. a friend of mine is on his fifth tour). Thank you.

Karen DeYoung: Things are not going well in Afghanistan. Although there seems to be widespread agreement more foreign troops needed, it's not at all clear that will be the answer.


Arlington, Va.: Sen. Obama pointed to Maliki's call for a timetable in his op-ed outlining his plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, but the BBC is now reporting that Maliki did not say what was widely and incorrectly reported. What he actually said was "the direction is towards either a memorandum of understanding on their evacuation, or a memorandum of understanding on programming their presence." What is the position of the Maliki government? Have they clarified their statement? When will The Post print a correction or clarification? Iraq faces dilemma over US troops (BBC, July 14)

Karen DeYoung: See above response. Maliki said he wanted "either a memorandum of understanding for the departure of forces or a memorandum of understanding to set a timetable for the presence of the forces, so that we know [their presence] will end in a specific time." I think the Iraqis agree on some kind of conditions-based departure. But Maliki also wants some dates to counter pressure from Sadr and others who have demanded a "timetable."


Freising, Germany: How is the oil business doing in Iraq these days? I've read that technical support agreements were pending between the Iraqi government and international oil companies, but is there any hope of increasing production in the short or medium term?

Karen DeYoung: They're somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million bpd--not great, but high oil prices have meant a lot more money. Oil ministry still shooting for 5 million, but it's been very slow going. The contracts are to improve production in existing fields. Development and longer term production contracts still await passage of a hydrocarbons law.


Stone Harbor, N.J.: The poll today shows voters equally divided for/against the Iraq conflict. Why is it, do you think, that so many commentators and journalists keep trumpeting that the majority of Americans want us out immediately? Is it wishful thinking on their part (hoping Obama will be elected) or are they really so out of touch? Poll Finds Voters Split on Candidates' Iraq-Pullout Positions (Post, July 15)

Karen DeYoung: Split in today's Washington Post poll is between those who agree with Obama's 16-month combat troop withdrawal timetable, and those who favor McCain's "conditions-based" approach with no timetable. Respondents also split down the middle on who they think better able to handle the war in general. A sizeable and largely unchanged majority (63 percent) say the war was not worth fighting in the first place, although there is a slight uptick (up to 46 percent from 40 percent) who say current U.S. policy is making some progress in restoring civil order.


Seattle: Easy one: Is Maliki's call for a timeline a negotiating tactic, an attempt to boost domestic support, or genuine? Probably a combination of all three, but which is primary, in your opinion?

Karen DeYoung: I agree it's all three. A realization that he can't have it both ways--can't say things are better, Iraqi security forces are doing great, but we still need as many Americans here for the foreseeable future. Iraqis are tired of seeing so many American soldiers around. That's one of the reasons why the "time horizon" now being negotiated is likely to be initially for withdrawal from more visible positions in Iraqi cities, rather than withdrawal from the country altogether.


Scotia, N.Y.: What is the legality of occupying a foreign country for an indefinite period of time based on the "consent" of a laughably nonrepresentative government? And by the way, isn't this why part of lower Manhattan is missing -- because our business partners in Saudi Arabia thought it was okay for us to park our troops in their Holy Land for a decade or so?

Karen DeYoung: Right now it's legal under Chapter 7 U.N. mandate that expires on Dec. 31. That's why they're negotiating a bilateral agreement for next year. Question is not whether the Iraqi government is "representative"--it got elected in a fairly open vote. But a lot of people didn't vote at all in those 2005 elections and the political lineup has changed considerably among both Shiites and Sunnis since then. Question now is who will win the next elections, and what do Maliki and his political allies have to do to stay in power as the U.S. troop presence has become both a symbolic and very real political issue?


Tampa, Fla.: Does the Iraqi government, such as it is, have any ability to deter the Bush administration from attacking Iran, or does the administration plan to attack Iran without using Iraqi bases or airspace? How do you think the Iraqi government and people would react to a U.S. attack on Iran, even one using only air strikes? And what if Bush uses Israel as a surrogate to attack Iran?

Karen DeYoung: It would be a real problem to attack Iran using Iraq-based forces. But there are lots of other U.S. forces--air, ground and sea--in the region. If somebody thought that was a good idea.


Alexandria, Va.: Does the U.S. admit there are Iraqi refugees in other countries, and does the U.S. admit to having any responsibility for them? I also understand most of the Christians (except U.S. soldiers) have left Iraq -- is that true?

Karen DeYoung: You've been reading Doonesbury, which has had a running commentary on Iraqi Christians in Syria. U.S. doesn't deny the figures of up to 2.5 million Iraqis in Syria and Jordan. Has appropriated a lot of money to help them. But not enough, in the view of some. And, in the view of some, not enough pressure on Iraqi government to help them, or to make it easier for Iraqi refugees to come to this country.


Madison, Wis.: Hi. Obama just gave a major speech on his approach to Iraq and terrorism, yet I can't find any mention of it on the homepage of The Post. A check to ABC, NBC, and other major outlets shows the same. But on BBC and CNN there are major stories. Why the poor coverage of these candidates, unless the story is sensationalistic like Jesse Jackson's comments? Do you think the media is doing the public a disservice by such a focus on relatively trivial stories? Now on the homepage: The Trail: Obama Delivers Address on Iraq War (, July 15)

Karen DeYoung: Speech just finished an hour or so ago. There will be a lot of coverage on it, everywhere.


Peaks Island, Maine: Does Sunday's attack on a remote U.S. base in Afghanistan point to dangers faced by troops stationed at small U.S. bases in Iraq in the event of failure of various agreements reached between U.S. forces and disparate Iraqi factions? Nine U.S. Soldiers Killed in Firefight (Post, July 14)

Karen DeYoung: The primary reason for the current relative peace in Iraq is a series of agreements cobbled together with local forces and factions around the country. Some of them have been actively incorporated into defending their communities--the so-called Sons of Iraq--and some have just decided for various reasons to lie low. In many communities, U.S. forces on the ground are the main arbiters/guarantors of these agreements. The idea is to transition Iraqis into resolving their own disagreements between groups without violence. But nobody knows whether that point has been reached and what will happen if/when U.S. forces withdraw.


Washington: Thank you for the excellent article on the SOFA/SFA negotiations. Isn't part of the problem that the Bush administration has given away so much of our leverage in effectively making clear that no matter conditions on the ground, our commitment to the Iraqi government remains unconditional and open-ended? Isn't a guarantee that we are not going to be there forever one of our best leverage points for giving the Iraqis incentives to get their house in order before we get out? U.S., Iraq Scale Down Negotiations Over Forces; Long-Term Agreement Will Fall to Next President (Post, July 13)

Karen DeYoung: You've correctly stated the Obama position--that only with sure knowledge of U.S. withdrawal will the Iraqis take responsibility to get their political house in order. Without that, he says, they've got little reason to do it and certainly haven't moved much so far. Others, i.e. Bush and McCain, say that of course we're not staying forever, but we've got to give them enough time to move toward political reconciliation and a time-specific withdrawal will just cause enemies to wait us out.


Ashland, Pa.: Do the American forces in the Iraqi theatre have access to the 2.5 million barrels per day of Iraqi oil for operational purposes, or is the military forced to purchase fuel etc. on the open market to sustain our operations?

Karen DeYoung: I believe most of the oil--as oil everywhere--goes on the open global market. We buy it.


Penfield, N.Y.: Given that putting more troops on the ground and paying the Sunnis to stop resisting and get after the foreign al-Qaeda troublemakers has calmed it all down, what exactly are we now doing in Iraq? Are we afraid that the 1,500-year war between the Sunni and Shia will resume when we leave, or that the Qaedas will rise again after we go (in which case we never really can leave)?

Meanwhile Afghanistan is starting to heat up because of the havens in Pakistan. Are the Busheviks holding off taking out more troops and sending them to Afghanistan so as not to let Obama say "thanks for taking my advice"? Or are they just trying to get as much mileage as possible out of the "surge has worked, admit it" mantra of McCain?

Karen DeYoung: See above response re withdrawal. Here are some metaphors--fingers are in the dyke, we think maybe the water pressure behind it has lessened, but aren't sure. The wound has stopped bleeding, but we're not certain whether it will start again if we remove the pressure bandage. If trouble starts up, can Iraqi security forces really handle it? Has al Qaeda in Iraq really been driven past the point of no return? Can the Iraqi government really get its act together to provide services, resettle refugees, play fair among the sects--or do they still need us breathing down their necks? Finally, do we, by staying there, make it more or less likely they'll figure out how to do it all on their own?


Carlsbad, Calif.: Thanks for taking my question. Isn't Iraq to a significant degree already "de facto" divided into Sunni, Kurd, and Shia parts? Because of the "tribal, ethnic, and sectarian" fighting and dislocation, the "foreseeable future" is probably at minimum a "federal" Iraq and at maximum a "loosely divided federation" with inherent and long-term instability -- precisely what Sen. Biden predicted? Your thoughts?

Karen DeYoung: At the beginning of all this, there were mostly Kurds in the north, mostly Sunnis in the West and mostly Shiites in the south. That is still the case. But there were also a lot of places--especially in Baghdad and some other cities--where all were mixed up. Over the past couple of years, insurgent and militia forces have drawn much starker lines, in Baghdad in particular. But I do think that an Iraqi national identity remains...the political fights now are over how to institutionalize that so that everyone believes they are being treated fairly.


Philadelphia: Ms. DeYoung, in the Post's "Faces of the Fallen," why aren't the contractors mentioned? They are doing military work, and more than 1,000 have been killed, with more than 12,000 wounded (and those figures are significantly outdated).

Karen DeYoung: Lots of reasons. The military is very good at keeping track of their own people. A relatively small percentage of civilian contractors in Iraq are Americans. Contractors are presumably there by personal choice, while the military is there as the representative of the U.S. government--meaning, all of us. We don't have the resources to confirm contractor deaths, or the space to print them.


Sacramento, Calif.: When the U.S. leaves Iraq, will Iran fill the vacuum? What happens to the Kurds and Sunnis?

Karen DeYoung: Most non-governmental experts, and many within the government, see the Iraq national identity as strong. While Iran certainly would like a compliant Iraq, neither the Iraqis themselves, nor any of their Sunni neighbors, want a "Persian" Iraq.


Karen DeYoung: Time is up and then some. Thanks, as usual, for thoughtful questions.


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