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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.

Brett McGurk
Brett McGurk
Director for Iraq
National Security Council
May 22, 2006

Brett McGurk
Hello again, this time from Baghdad. I have been here for a couple weeks and on Saturday witnessed the first full and peaceful transition of power from one elected government to another in the history of this remarkable country. There is still a great deal to do, but a promising new chapter has opened in Iraq. I am happy to take your questions about all that is happening.

Charles, from Winter Park, FL writes:
What is the state of the Iraqi media? Are Iraqis reading newspapers written by and watching television programs produced by their fellow citizens?

Brett McGurk
A good question to start with. I am doing this chat from the Public Affairs section of the U.S. Embassy here in Baghdad. In front of me is a wall of television screens tuned to Iraqi and regional television stations. The Iraqi stations are extremely well produced. (Perhaps C-SPAN could play a few of its shows, Americans would get a very different picture of Iraq.)

On Iraqiya and Al Sharqiya, two of the leading Iraqi channels, you would see "talking head" interview shows with leading Iraqi politicians facing tough questioning from interviewers. That is no big deal in many countries but it is a sea change in this part of the world. I have also noticed that televisions in Iraqi government buildings and the offices of political leaders are now tuned to Iraqi channels. This is much different from when I was last here in the fall of 2004 when televisions were tuned mostly to Al Jazeera or other regional satellite channels.

In total, since Saddam was removed from power three years ago (remember Baghdad Bob?), over 100 radio and TV stations have been licensed and nearly 200 newspapers are available. Al Iraqiya actually has a program in which a woman anchor highlights and reads different stories from the many newspapers available around Baghdad.

Even with this progress, however, we must recognize that editors, writers, and distributors face significant danger here, including abduction and assassination. A popular television journalist for Al Arabiya was recently kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists. I sometimes ask those who oppose the mission here to think for a minute and to think seriously about what is at stake.

The press story is a good example: on one side are brave Iraqis learning and plying a new trade, pursuing the universal values of free speech and expression in what three years ago was among the darkest corners on earth. On the other side are terrorists and murderers targeting journalists for reporting the truth or expressing an opinion.

Some say the struggle here has a taint of moral ambiguity. That could not be more wrong.

Anthony, from Tempe, Arizona writes:
How many mass graves have been found since we have liberated Iraq from their horrendous dictator? More importantly, how many estimated bodies were found in those graves, and how many of those bodies do you estimate deserved their fate?

Further, answering as objectively as possible, would you say the people of Iraq are better off, worse off, or the same, without Saddam (the Butcher of Baghdad)?

Brett McGurk
The forensic teams here at the Embassy estimate that there are approximately 180 mass graves in Iraq. Some range over large areas and have contained tens of thousands of women and children (refugees with all of their clothes in bags, or wearing multiple layers of clothing). No accurate account is possible, but the best estimate is that up to 300,000 victims are buried in mass graves around the country. Some will never be fully excavated because the local populace has simply dug up their relatives or erected makeshift memorials over the sites that bar further excavation.

A friend working with the Iraqi tribunal now trying Saddam relayed a story from a recent visit to a mass grave site. What struck him the most, aside from the stench, and the shock of seeing people lined in a ditch, comprised mainly of women holding children in a cowering position (to protect them from automatic gunfire), was a man who had just been told the remains of his wife and two children had been found. Rather than crying or screaming, the man started to hug everyone around the sight and thanked the Americans present for making the moment possible. We cannot hope to understand what this man had endured, but we know that he can now pay his closest loved ones proper respect.

We also know that he can see justice being done to those responsible for his loss. I went to see Saddam Hussein on trial last week. Americans are not getting a full sense of what this trial is like. Saddam's rants are an irrelevant sideshow. Everyday, in hours of dry and tedious testimony, the case against him has been building and victims are having their say.

Saddam Hussein is in the dock: a defendant on trial, facing charges under Iraqi law. The day I was there, the panel of Iraqi judges formally read charges against Saddam for ordering a massacre in the town of Al-Dujayl. This was a significant moment in the case because it demonstrated that the evidence met the standards for conviction and sentencing. Saddam protested that he remains the President of Iraq. The chief judge said, no, you are a defendant.

Saddam sat down and was quiet for the rest of the day.

Joel, from Superior, WI writes:
Mr. McGurk, Do you think that the new Iraqi prime minister is going to be able to better stop the violence in Iraq, compared to the previous prime minister?

Brett McGurk
The violence in Iraq will not disappear overnight. But Prime Minister Maliki has a number of elements in his favor that were not available to the previous, transitional governments. Let me discuss three of them:

First, this is a true unity government that represents all Iraqi communities. This removes a major (albeit false) pretext for violence that has existed until now; namely, the perceived lack of space in the new Iraq for its Sunni Arab community.

The new speaker of parliament, Mahmoud Mashhadani, is a tough talking Sunni hard-liner who shortly after taking office went on national television to call on all Iraqis to put down arms and stop fighting. He explained that Iraq is now being governed under a "common vision" and differences must be resolved through the political process. These may seem like mere words to some, but they are not words we were hearing as of even six months ago.

On Saturday, during the swearing in ceremony, Mashhadani graciously congratulated Maliki and the new cabinet and then went one-by-one to shake hands with each of the new ministers. This was a powerfully symbolic gesture. And considering that only six months ago it was unclear whether Sunnis would ever truly participate in the political process, it was a testament to our strategy, which has sought to create the conditions for the Sunni Arab community to accept and then fully join a democratic political process.

Second, the Prime Minister clearly understands the situation and what needs to be done. He explained during a press conference yesterday: "We believe that facing [the security challenge] won't only be with the use of force -- we're going to use a lot of force in facing terrorists and killers that are killing Iraqis everyday -- but we have, in addition to the use of force, we have to have reconciliation, national reconciliation, an initiative of reconciliation, and to bridge the differences and to build confidence between all different parts of Iraqi society."

These are not mere words. We have heard few Shi'a Arab leaders speaking this way until now, speaking about reconciliation and bridging divides. This is understandable. There has been tremendous fear and mistrust in this country, fostered by three decades of rule by Saddam Hussein and a history of violent betrayals, often at the expense of Shi'a Arabs. Iraq's Shi'a leaders deserve a great deal of credit for the steady leadership they have shown since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in the face of horrendous atrocities. We have stood with them, the Kurds have stood with them, and now the Sunni Arabs are vocally standing with them as well.

Maliki understands that true reconciliation will require give and take from all sides and Shi'a leaders must act decisively to rein in party militias, which the Iraqi constitution declares illegal. In short, with all communities inside the political process, the fundamentals are now in place to establish a true and lasting peace in this country. This will take time, patience, and tremendous effort from all sides, but we are here to assist, as is the United Nations, the Arab League, and other international partners and organizations.

Third, Iraq now has a full-term government (empowered to rule for up to 4 years) that will be able to focus on core issues and implement long-term solutions. The Iraqi Interim Government, led by Iyad Allawi, was focused on setting the conditions for Iraq's first nationwide election in January 2005. The Iraqi Transitional Government, led by Ibrahim Ja'afari, was focused on drafting and approving a new constitution in a national referendum. This government is focused on governing and meeting the many challenges that now confront Iraq.

Maliki understands this, and he is emerging as a determined, focused, and hard-nosed leader. I have seen this with my own eyes. He is focused initially on the fundamental issues of security and services. This is the right approach. On Thursday, he will be meeting with his national security team to review a plan for increasing security in Baghdad, which the terrorists have made their focal point. We are prepared to help him meet these challenges. The Iraqis of course must themselves rise up to defeat the terrorists and secure their infrastructure. But thus far we are very impressed with this new team.

I have not mentioned the growth and sophistication of the Iraqi Security Forces, which now number more than 263,000 trained and equipped. I described the training of the Iraqi forces in more detail in my last chat here on Ask the White House on April 10.

This is a real success story that is paying dividends everyday. One example I heard about last week: A Coalition patrol was attacked on Tuesday in a drive-by shooting in the al Mansour district of Baghdad. The attackers fled and were seen taking shelter inside a mosque. Iraqi soldiers took the lead, surrounded the mosque, negotiated with the Imam, conducted a thorough search, and detained eleven males hiding inside. The Iraqi soldiers discovered a large weapons cache, including bomb-making materials, a machine gun, a sniper rifle, and explosives. Local leaders thanked the Iraqi soldiers and confirmed that the mosque sustained no damage or disrespect.

This is one small example of the work being done everyday by Iraqi forces -- work that demands local knowledge and sensitivities. Prime Minister Maliki will have these forces at his disposal to work in cooperation with us as he takes on the truly irredeemable elements of the insurgency.

Rod, from California writes:
What are we doing to locate, and neutalize AL Ziqawi, and the other foreign arabs in Iraq ?

Brett McGurk
The first step in neutralizing Zarqawi is expanding the political process to include the Sunni Arab community. Zarqawi understands the danger of this expansion which is why he threatened anyone who participates in the process (including women, children, and the elderly) with death. Zarqawi has lost this fight. Badly. Sunnis are now fully invested in the political process, and the result is an ever increasing number of tips leading to the capture and death of Zarqawi cohorts.

I spoke about the different elements of the insurgency in my last Ask the White House chat and I noted the importance of tips as a leading indicator in the Iraqi public's disgust with those elements, the terrorists and Saddamists in particular. During my short stay here in Baghdad I've seen the results of this up close.

Two weeks into this month, we are on track to meet or exceed the number of regional and national tips received in April -- the highest on record. Since January of this year, the Baghdad Joint Coordination Center (a combined effort of Iraqi and Coalition Forces) has fielded 6,657 tips -- an average of 51 per day. Sixty-nine percent of these tips were effective, meaning the action taken as a result of the tip provided a tangible result to Coalition and Iraqi forces. Last week, for the second week in a row, a tip hotline set up by the Iraqi Police received more than 400 calls. Last week's total was the highest total it has ever received and 99 percent were actionable.

This in short is how an insurgency is defeated: expand the political process, drive wedges into insurgent fault lines, gather intelligence, and empower security forces to destroy insurgent networks from within. This is hard, tedious, work -- with results that are not apparent overnight.

My counterinsurgency friends sometimes discuss the "3 P's" of counterinsurgency: presence, patience, and persistence. The middle one may be the most difficult. But from the ground here in Iraq I can report impressive strides against the nucleus of the insurgency and it is only a matter of time before the Iraqis bring Zarqawi to justice for his crimes. Maliki is pulling no punches. He has pledged to bring maximum force against Zarqawi and we are here to help. With patience and persistence, Rod, the job will be done.

Anthony, from Albuquerque, NM writes:
How does the government evaluate the success of its programs? What measures for progress in Iraq do you use and trust? What as a citizen can I use as a gauge of progress? Casualties? Police trained? Elections held? What quantitative indicators will mean the job is done? Every indicator seems to be subjective and I cannot discern the trends in Iraq progress from the media or govt. press statements. Right now my main personal indicator is the number of friends doing repeat military tours overseas.

Brett McGurk
We track scores of indicators to track our progress here on the ground. You can get a good sense of this by reading the many reports put out by the State and Defense Departments. See for example the Defense Department’s 9010 Report and the State Department’s recent 1227 Report. DoD will be coming out with an updated 9010 report in the coming weeks. I would also recommend reading our National Victory Strategy document which contains more detail and links to additional sources for your review.

Curtis, from Boston writes:
Brett,We saw great news this weekend out of Iraq about the unity government being formed; only proving the critics wrong that a functioning, agreeable democracy is possible in Iraq. Like I tell those that think we should leave and pull all the troops out now, "Rome wasn't built in a day, great things take time."

Roughly three years since the war began, we have accomplished quite a bit in a rather short amount of time compared to other major postwar rebuilding efforts (like Europe and Korea). My question is, given the good news this weekend; do you think that Iraq has turned the corner and that it will deal a significant blow to those opposing freedom and democracy in Iraq?

Brett McGurk
Of course, Iraq will not have turned a corner until the government proves it can meet the needs of the Iraqi people. This will take time. But as I explained above, the fundamentals are in place, and as Ambassador Khalilzad explained over the weekend -- with all communities now inside the political process -- Iraq strategically is heading in the right direction. There is no question about this. We have opened a new and promising chapter here.

I have seen some commentary dismiss what happened this weekend by pointing to elections and other benchmarks and then saying nothing has really changed on the ground. Let me explain why that is wrong. I was here in the spring of 2004 when the Iraqi Governing Council enacted an interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law. I was also here later that year when the Coalition Provisional Authority dissolved and the Iraqi Interim Government formally took power. And I was here when the Iraqis began to prepare for the first round of national elections in January 2005. Those were important and hopeful moments but they were only the building blocks to what is now getting underway. The interim constitution set in place a roadmap -- elections, drafting a constitution, holding a national referendum, and then holding national elections under the constitution -- that some dismissed as unrealistic for Iraq. Iraq will never be able to hold national elections. The Sunnis will never accept a democratic system of governance. The Kurds will never fully support a unified Iraq. This was conventional wisdom at the time and we and the Iraqis had to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.

Each benchmark -- from the interim constitution, through elections, to the constitution, to the constitutional referendum, and then the December elections -- was carefully designed to build momentum for the political process, to isolate the terrorists, and to bring all communities together to chart a common path forward. That has now happened. The new Iraqi parliament is vocal, balanced, and diverse, with 275 elected members (including 75 women) from all parts of the country, representing all communities. That parliament on Saturday approved a 34-point unity government program, which pledges to the Iraqi people that the government will work together to tackle the primary challenges facing Iraq. These include the issues of security, militias, electricity, in addition to protecting women’s rights and "rejecting autocracy, dictatorship, sectarianism, and racism in all its forms." This is a revolutionary document for this country and the people have the power to hold their government to account if it fails to deliver.

In sum, I do not want to say Iraq has yet turned a corner but it has reached an unprecedented moment of opportunity and promise. We and the international community need to stand behind the Iraqi people as they work in the coming weeks and months to consolidate their democratic gains and develop the institutions and traditions of free governance that will endure here for generations.

Ryan, from Chicago writes:
How is this new government that was recently formed, different from the interim governments that were in place after June of 2004? What is different now as opposed to before?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, Ryan. I think my previous answers address your question. What is most important is that this government is empowered to serve a full four-year term under a permanent constitution. This changes the focus and seriousness of the reform efforts that are underway and allows the Iraqis to implement lasting, long-term solutions. The government also enjoys the support of all major communities in Iraq -- nearly 85% of the parliament is formally a part of the unity government announced on Saturday. Iraq has never seen anything like this before (nor have many countries in this region, I might add).

Earlier today I attended a joint press conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraq’s new Prime Minister Maliki. The two prime ministers put out a joint 3-page statement that should be available on the internet later today. It is worth reading. One important element this full-term government should have in its favor is enhanced international cooperation and support. Tony Blair explained in the press conference, for example, that the full-term nature of this government should facilitate Iraq’s integration into the global economy and acceptance as a full member of the international community. The joint statement discussed a new “compact with the international community, with a key role for the United Nations and the World Bank.” This compact will widen the circle of countries that support Iraq and offer Iraq an opportunity to apply targeted assistance to critical areas of need. Iraq in return will become more attractive for long term investment by implementing necessary economic reforms, practicing budget discipline, and fighting corruption, among other measures. The United States is prepared to fully support such initiatives -- one of many that give meaning and substance to the “new chapter” that has opened here.

Samantha, from Indianapoils, Indiana writes:
Although lots of time has passed since the war started, it seems as if the same events are being replayed over and over again. I was just wondering if we have a stratagie or if the us military is just flying by the seat of their pants at this point? As a marines wife it would be so nice to knwo that you are doing everything you can to bring all of our men and women home safe and sound.

Brett McGurk
Samantha, I want to assure you that everyone involved in this effort -- from the President on down -- is doing everything he or she can to ensure a lasting victory in Iraq and to bring your husband home safely. The President is fully engaged everyday on what is happening here and we have often adjusted our strategy to adapt to the changing conditions on the ground. I tried to explain in my earlier answers how what is happening now is far different than the other benchmarks you may be referencing in your question.

It is sometimes hard to see how daily news -- of what our military is doing, for example -- fits into a larger picture. But every action is coordinated along the three tracks of our strategy (security, political, and economic). The Marines late last summer and into the fall, for example, carried out a series of operations along the Syrian border and in towns within the Euphrates River Valley. Those operations at the time may have seen as isolated events but they were creating the conditions for a massive Sunni turnout in the December elections which in turn led to the formation this past weekend of a unity government. These towns at the time were in the grip of terrorists who were beheading anyone who opposed their rule, or sought to participate in the political process. By December, the terrorists had been cleared out, and people stood in line for hours to exercise their right to vote for the first time in their lives. The result was a balanced parliament, full Sunni participation in a constitutional government, and the further isolation of Zarqawi and anyone who still supports him. Look at the voter turnout in Anbar province. In January 2005, it was 2%. In December 2005, it was above 75%. This would not have happened without your husband and his fellow Marines.

Your husband, Samantha, is the part of something huge and important. Ambassador Khalilzad said this morning that this “is the defining challenge of our time in the same way that the Soviet Union was the defining challenge of the previous period.” The stakes here are enormous for Iraq, for the region, and for the world. I cannot begin to know how difficult it must be for you at home. But you should be very proud. I wish you all the best. And I wish your husband a successful mission and a safe journey home.

Venus, from China writes:
What's your perception of the leadership of the new unity government in Iraq? Thank you.

Brett McGurk
Venus, My impression from the ground is that the top posts of this new government are filled with strong, tough, and determined leaders. They are authentic leaders who can speak for their communities. And they are focused on addressing the many challenges now facing Iraq. Ambassador Khalilzad is quite impressed, for example, with the way Prime Minister Maliki handled these difficult weeks of cabinet formation. Maliki was at the table the entire time, negotiating and compromising with the leaders of other political blocs. The President has also been impressed in his initial phone conversations with the Prime Minister. There is some ways to go, obviously, but the government is off to a very good start and there are good people in place to deliver real results for the Iraqi people.

I mentioned Speaker Mashhadani earlier. This is an individual who is new to the political process and has no experience running any large institution, let alone a large and raucous body like the Iraqi parliament. He had some missteps in the initial parliament sessions. But I saw him in action on Saturday and was quite impressed. With the eyes of the world on his assembly, Mashhadani proved to be a very effective leader, calling members to order and moving the agenda steadily forward. It was an impressive performance and bodes well for the future of this important institution.

The Iraqi parliament will play a vital role in the next four years. It needs to enact critical pieces of legislation and it enjoys strong oversight power under the Iraqi constitution to ensure ministries and other institutions are acting within their lawful authorities. I have spent only a few days this week in the parliament building and I can assure you that this independent branch of the Iraqi government will not be afraid to assert itself! The parliamentarians I have met (men and women) are devoted to the principles of democracy and many have risked their lives to prove it. Nor are they are afraid to tell you what they think. Iraqis are naturally animated, vibrant, and vocal; they now have a political system that gives these expressions form and substance.

R.D., from Furman University writes:
Is it true that the head positions of interior, defense, and the national security advisor have yet to be filled in Iraq? Does this concern you?

Brett McGurk
We would have liked to have seen these positions filled as of Saturday. But we are not concerned about the slight delay. Remember that Prime Minister Maliki has put some very demanding conditions on who can fill these posts. They must be unifiers; they have to be non-partisan without sectarian loyalties; they cannot have ties to any militia; and they have to be broadly accepted by all the major lists in parliament. These individuals must enjoy broad support among the Iraqi people to build confidence in the Iraqi Security Force among all communities. It is important that Maliki gets this done right rather than done immediately. So if they need a few more days, and Maliki has said another week, to find the right people for these important jobs, I don’t think it is all that important. Remember that these ministers may serve for up to four years.

Brett McGurk
That is unfortunately all the time I have this evening. Thank you again for all your questions. I tried to select a representative sample and address them in detail. I hope I offered a sense of what we are seeing here on the ground during this historic week.