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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Meghan O'Sullivan
Meghan O'Sullivan
Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq
June 28, 2005

Meghan O'Sullivan
Welcome to Ask the White House. President Bush just hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Ja'afari – the first elected Iraqi leader in more than 50 years – at the White House. And tonight, the President will talk to America about our involvement in Iraq, the progress we and the Iraqis have been making, and the challenges ahead. I am happy to be able to answer your questions on Iraq today.

Laurence, from England writes:
Is the democracy in Iraq freedom? or is it just the Bush administration's belief on what freedom is and forcing it on the Iraqi people?

Meghan O'Sullivan

The President has put nurturing democracy and freedom at the heart of his agenda, both because he believes in the universal desire of people to determine who governs them and because he believes that America is safer the fewer people in the world live under tyranny. But the President has made equally clear that America will not impose democracy on other countries. In his inaugural address, he said America’s goal is “to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

And that is exactly what America is doing in Iraq. Anyone who questions the desire of the Iraqi people to live in a democracy need not look far to be convinced of their commitment. Under the threat of intimidation and violence, more than 8 million people risked their lives to go to the polls in January 2005 to elect a government for the first time in more than 50 years. And since April 2003, thousands of Iraqis have come forward to serve their country and play their part in building a new democracy. They have served – and some have died – as part of Iraq’s security forces, national government, local institutions, and Iraq’s courts. When I was in Baghdad in June 2004, speaking with Iraqi leaders who just accepted appointments as ministers in Iraq’s interim government, I asked one minister if he was worried about his security. He said, “I know it is possible – even likely – that I will be killed in this position. But if I don’t step forward to build a democratic Iraq, I can’t blame others for not stepping forward. We must be willing to sacrifice to make our new country.”

George, from California writes:
what do you think the most significant progress in Iraq has been thus far?

Meghan O'Sullivan
The Iraqi people have come a long way since suffering under the tyranny imposed on them by Saddam Hussein - and our troops and diplomats have helped them make the progress that we can point to today.

In the two years since liberation, the Iraqis have negotiated an interim constitution that protects individual rights, establishes checks and balances and the separation of powers, uses federalism to promote the unity of Iraq, and calls for free and democratic elections. Countless Iraqi political parties, newspapers, television and radio stations, civil society groups have all been formed to take advantage of these new freedoms. On January 30, over 8 million Iraqi citizens exercised their right to vote, casting ballots for Iraq’s first elected government in generations. Now they are hard at work writing a new constitution, and preparing for a referendum in October and a new set of elections in December.

On the security side, the situation remains serious, with significant casualties on both the Coalition and Iraqi sides. There has, however, been notable progress. Just last summer, the Iraqi government did not have control of large important cities in Iraq, including Najaf, Fallujah, and Samarra. Today, insurgents and terrorists in these cities have been pushed back, detained, or killed and the cities are firmly in control of the Iraqi authorities. Similarly, there has been major progress in the training of Iraqi security forces. Although much work remains to be done, Iraqi units are both more numerous and more capable than they were a year ago.

Maxim, from Cambridge, MA writes:
Thank you for taking this question.Democracy is undoubtedly a tremendous step for Iraq. What specific short term and long term benefits does it bring to America that justify the cost in money and lives?

Meghan O'Sullivan

Throughout our history, Americans have recognized that we have a special affinity for the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. Democracy in Iraq will have enormous benefits for the Iraqi people. So many Iraqis suffered under Saddam, and citizens everywhere are exercising their newfound freedoms to think, speak, worship, and vote as they please.

But democracy in Iraq will also be important to the United States. For one thing, a democratic Iraq is more likely to be at peace with its neighbors – and that peace will mean stability, economic development, trade, and good relations with the U.S. This will be in sharp contrast to Saddam’s Iraq, which was constantly menacing its neighbors, requiring our constant vigilance – and in the case of the Gulf War, our military intervention to liberate Kuwait. Iraq under Saddam was among the world’s leading outlaw regimes. A new, peaceful, and democratic Iraq would be committed to good relations with its neighbors and full re-integration into the international community.

Democracy in Iraq will also have broader strategic developments in the region. After the defeat of Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II, the emergence of stable democracies in Europe and Asia laid the foundation for a more peaceful and stable world. A democratic Iraq will demonstrate the people of the Middle East that they, too, are fully capable and deserving of self-government. A democratic Iraq will help spur reform elsewhere in the Middle East – and might ultimately help one of the world’s most turbulent region become safer, more prosperous, more democratic, and a closer partner with the United States and others democracies throughout the world.

Ultimately, democracy in Iraq will help the United States and the international community defeat terrorism and extremism. Democracy and self-government are powerful – and peaceful – weapons in the effort to undermine the discontent and alienation that so many people in the Middle East now feel. A successful democracy in Iraq will demolish the argument of the al-Qaedas of the world, who believe that only violence and destruction can bring salvation in the eyes of God. Democracy in Iraq – and potentially in the Middle East more broadly – will show the full compatibility of Islam with human rights and good government.

Chaim, from Boston, Massachusetts writes:
Could you give some examples of how security and self-sustainability in Iraq correlates with the withdrawal of American troops. For instance, what objectives should be met before, say, about half the troops can return? Are there any estimates on when these objectives will be fulfilled? Thank you.

Meghan O'Sullivan

As the President and Prime Minister Ja’afari discussed on Friday, our mutual goal is to have Iraqis provide for security in Iraq without the help of foreign troops. Our immediate objective, therefore, is to help Iraqi forces grow in capability so that they will be able to do this. As Iraqi units demonstrate their ability to conduct independent operations, they will shoulder more of the burden for security – and less and less of the burden will fall to our forces. Some Iraqi units in Baghdad and Mosul have already demonstrated the acumen to succeed and conduct operations within their own area without coalition support.

In order to speed up this process of building Iraqi security forces, we have instituted some new approaches in how we train Iraqis. We are progressively shifting our focus to training Iraqi forces by “partnering” coalition units with Iraqi units and placing transition teams within each Iraqi battalion-sized unit and larger. Partnering assists with expertise, planning, and evaluation to develop quality training while the embedded transition teams live and work with the Iraqi units while providing expertise on leadership, intelligence, communications, medical and logistical functions.

We are confident this approach will bear results – and we are already seeing evidence of this. However, it is not possible to put a timeline on how quickly the building up of Iraqi forces or the transfer of responsibility for security to them will happen. Setting a date for Coalition departure from Iraq would not hasten this process. Instead, it would only inspire the terrorists and insurgents to wait until that date, at which point they would intensify their attacks on the Iraqi government and people, jeopardizing the progress made so far, and wasting the sacrifices already made.

Heather, from Rockford Michigan writes:
What is the relationship with the President and Iraq's Prime Minister like? It is good like it was with the interim Prime Minister?

Meghan O'Sullivan
Although the President and Prime Minister Ja’afari had spoken on the phone in the past, they met for the first time on Friday. They immediately established a good relationship, and spent a good deal of time talking about the things that matter to them most: family, a personal commitment to religion, and importance of democracy and freedom. The President made clear that the United States is committed to Iraq. The Prime Minister spoke passionately of his and the Iraqi people’s deep thanks to the American people for allowing them to be free. They also shared a common vision of the importance of Iraq in the region, with both leaders noting that Iraq’s example has inspired many in the region already. Prime Minister Ja’afari, although a medical doctor, is also an ardent student of American history. So, in addition to talking about the current situation in Iraq, they discussed John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson!

Alan, from Folsom California writes:
Hi Meghan. I have 3 questions, hopefully one will not be asked by others.

Is the Prime Minister encouraged by the increasing number of Sunni leaders standing up against the insurgency?

What is the government doing to encourage Sunnis to stand up to the insurgents?

Is the government doing anything to change the way people line up for jobs because the terrorists target them when they do.


Meghan O'Sullivan
All good questions. One of the greatest areas of progress over the past few months is just what you suggest – that an increasing number of Sunnis are standing up to the insurgency. Some do this in small but important ways, such as placing a call to a TIPS line when they see suspicious activities. Others have done it by joining the Iraqi security services, or, in the case of one Sunni cleric, by calling on Sunnis to join the Iraqi forces. Perhaps what is most notable, however, is the number of Sunnis who now want to be part of the political process. Many Sunni leaders opposed the election and encouraged other Sunnis not to vote. Today, many of these same people have admitted that staying outside the democratic process was a mistake, and that the future for them and their community lies in being part of the process. Today, Sunnis are part of the government – approximately 20% of the ministers are Sunni, despite the fact that a very small number of Sunnis voted. And many Sunnis are actively working to be part of the constitutional process that is underway. All of these developments – although not necessarily permanent or complete – are good news. The more Sunnis that understand that there is a place for them in a democratic Iraq, the less space the insurgency has to operate in.

Jeremy, from San Juan Capistrano, CA writes:
What are the opportunities for foreign economic investment in Iraq? Is Iraq still exporting oil? If so, how is the money received being spent?

Meghan O'Sullivan
Iraq is a country of enormous economic potential, with its educated people and its wealth of natural resources. Currently, Iraq is open to foreign investment in accordance with Iraqi laws, which are quite liberal by any standard. Although foreign investment has not yet flown to Iraq in great quantities, there are already 30 companies that have agreed to provide technical assistance and training to the Iraqi Oil Companies. Iraq is still exporting oil – more than 2 million barrels a day. In the past year, Iraq has earned almost $19 billion in oil revenue. The Iraqi government is using this income to fund its budget, which involves costs associated with its growing security forces, the payments of a large number of public sector employees, and the provision of services to the Iraqi people. The Iraqi government, however, devotes a huge portion of its budget to the payment of fuel and food subsidies. Although it will be difficult, the Iraqi government has dedicated itself to instituting much needed reforms that will diminish the size of these subsidies and put Iraq on sounder economic footing.

Jim, from Washington DC writes:
Ms. O'Sullivan, I have been named as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Attache, Baghdad, and the DHS Country Director, Iraq. I will be departing for Iraq in mid-to-late July. I merely wished to say hello.

Respectfully, Jim Kuiken

Meghan O'Sullivan

Jim, Many thanks for introducing yourself and congratulations on your new assignment. I spent 17 months in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and found it to be an incredibly rewarding place. I was inspired by the Iraqis I worked with and their dedication to building a new future, and the selflessness of so many Americans and other internationals out there in uniform and serving as diplomats. It was, of course, also a pretty intense place to be – I hope you like hot weather and don’t need too much sleep! Despite some of the hardships, I will never regret the time I spent in Baghdad. We are thankful to you and all those who make the commitment to spend time in Iraq. I am confident that you will be glad you did it! Best wishes, Meghan

Meghan O'Sullivan
Thank you all for joining me today on Ask the White House. I really enjoyed your questions – and regret not having the time to answer all of them. Thank you for your interest in Iraq and your dedication to hearing more of the story than you see on the front pages of our newspapers. I hope that you all are able to watch the President's speech tonight!