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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
Special Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan

December 14, 2005

Meghan O'Sullivan
My name is Meghan O'Sullivan, and I am Special Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq. I'm pleased to join you today to talk about the situation in Iraq, on the eve of Iraq's historic elections.

Brad, from Milwaukee, WI writes:
Does the Iraqi Parliament elections base off of proportional representation or single member districts?

Meghan O'Sullivan
The elections tomorrow will be based on proportional representation by province. In political science lingo it’s a PPR (or Provincial Proportional Representation) system. The elections will select a 275-member parliament. 230 seats are allocated according to the population figures – based on food-ration card data – in each province. The province of Ninewa, for example, will have 19 seats, Baghdad 59 seats, and Basra 16 seats. 45 seats will be elected on a national basis using a process designed to give seats to parties with significant national appeal that do not muster enough votes to win seats in a province. This system is specifically designed to ensure fair representation from all areas of Iraq and include all groups in the political process.

Behind the details of the system, however, is a bigger story – and one that is often missed. Time and again, Iraq’s political leaders have reached out to expand the avenues of participation to all groups and communities. In the January 2005 elections, the system used was based on a single-district model and resulted in a lopsided assembly when Sunni Arabs did not vote in large numbers. Representation ended up being directly related to voter turnout. As a result of the imbalanced Assembly that resulted, elected leaders worked hard to reform the system, and to do so in a manner that guarantees significant Sunni representation. This is a tribute to these leaders, and a sign that most of the political class in Iraq is working to build an inclusive state, with meaningful participation by all communities.

Christa, from Chicago writes:
Ms O'Sullivan, I am excited about the upcoming elections in Iraq. President Bush and his staff have created this historical opportunity for the Iraqi people to express their new freedoms.

On December 15, will our armed forces or Iraq's growing military guard most of the polling places? I know the President's goal is to slowly hand control to Iraq, but I would like to know if they are prepared enough to do this.

Also, I know that the elections will be a success. I hope that the White House will post the results on this site, since the media will not do so.

Thank you for your time.

Meghan O'Sullivan
The Iraqi Security Forces will take the lead across Iraq to secure polling places – there will be approximately 6,200 polling places in Iraq, up from 5,900 for October’s referendum. Our commanders and diplomats in Iraq have made a point of telling us that Iraqi forces are more organized and more eager than ever before in planning for this election and executing those plans. They are taking the lead in providing security across Iraq; voters that go to the polls tomorrow should see Iraqis protecting polls stations and other electoral infrastructure. Our forces will be mainly providing backup.

You may recall during the January elections that Iraqis also lead the protection of polling sites. And today there are a lot of more of them. In January, Iraqi Security Forces numbered about 130,000. In October, they numbered 200,000, and there will be approximately 225,000 deployed throughout Iraq tomorrow. The Iraqi Security Forces are proud and courageous, and they’re gaining the confidence of the Iraqi people. A recent poll you may have seen, conducted by ABC News, found that 67% of Iraqis had confidence in the new Iraqi Army, up from 56% in February, 2004, and 39% in November 2003. Confidence in the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police was higher than any other public or religious institution in Iraq. These are telling figures, and they support what I see reported from the field: Iraqis of all communities are volunteering for the ISF, and many Iraqi people are impressed with the work of the trained and deployed units.

This is not to say everything is perfect. We are working with the Iraqi government to ensure that Iraqi units act in accordance with international human rights standards, and that those who violate human rights are held to account. The Iraqis also need to improve their logistical capacities, and build up a professional officer corps. We are working with international partners, especially NATO, to address these issues – and the progress is steady and continuing. Tomorrow will be another day for the Iraqis forces to be in the spotlight – but much of the progress and the hard work is happening beyond the headlines and will not make the evening news.

Peter, from Marquette, Michigan writes:
Director O'Sullivan, Are there elected positions similar to sheriffs, clerks, county boards, township boards, states, etc. coming to fruition in Iraq or are only the federal and judicial branches being formed? I unfortunately haven't heard many useful details out of the American media regarding Iraq, so if you also have contacts to research this information, that would be very useful. In a nutshell, are we supporting local government formation in the Middle East in any form?

Thank you for your valuable time,


Meghan O'Sullivan

This is a very good question. Each province in Iraq has an elected provincial council, which is responsible for basic local governance issues. In the Kurdish north, the Kurdistan Regional Government is elected to run the affairs of the Kurdish region. There are also elected local town councils, and police chiefs who are appointed by elected leaders in Iraq’s cities and towns. The new constitution establishes a system of checks and balances and shared powers between different levels of government. The system is not perfect, and many questions have been deferred to the next elected parliament – which will allow elected leaders to work out the details for themselves. This process will be difficult, but it is critical to success in Iraq. The Iraqis are working to overcome three decades of a centralized dictatorship. The result is that some groups (like the Shi’a and Kurds) fear the central government, while others (especially the Sunnis) fear any devolution of authority from the center to the provinces or regions. There is a wide range of issues that elected leaders will need to work through over then next year. We will work with the Iraqis to reach sound solutions, as will other partners like the United Nations, which has an impressive team of experts on the ground in Baghdad. But it is ultimately up to the Iraqis to find the arrangement that best suits their vision for a common future.

Robert, from Alexandria VA writes:
Ambassador Khalilzad recently made a distinction between "insurgents" and "terrorists." Can we negotiate our way out of Iraq by talking to the insurgents, Baathists, and former Iraqi military officers who are fighting us?

Meghan O'Sullivan
The President, in a series of recent speeches on Iraq, has talked a good deal about the enemy we and the Iraqi government faces in Iraq, and how there are different elements of this enemy. He has explained that we need to have a different approach to each element. The President and Ambassador Khalilzad have referred to three types of people fighting us and the Iraqis in Iraq: rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists.

The first category is made up of largely Sunni Iraqis who are disillusioned with the new Iraqi state, and confused about how they fit into a country where they are no longer the governing community. They need to be convinced that, even if they cannot rule Iraq unilaterally, they can still have an impact on the shape of the country and protect their rights. Convincing the rejectionists that they should no longer “reject” Iraq in large part depends on the political process – on engaging this group, getting them to renounce violence and join the political process. We and the Iraqi government have made significant progress in bringing the Sunnis in. Those who vote tomorrow will be demonstrating that they believe the political process might be the best way to advance their interests. The next challenge will be to incorporate elected Sunni leaders into the governing structures, so that they – along with their Shi’a and Kurdish counterparts – can have a voice in the new Iraq. This process is ultimately the key to undermining a huge part of the insurgency.

The Saddamists – who you refer to as Ba’athists and former members of the regime – are people who still want to recreate a Ba’athist regime like the one run by Saddam Hussein. They are unlikely to ever be won over by the political process or convinced of the merits of democracy for all Iraqis. We are, however, confident that they do not have much support in Iraq and that ultimately the Iraqi forces will have the ability to bring these people to justice.

Lastly, the terrorists also have a perverse vision of Iraq that is incompatible with ours, or that of the overwhelming majority of all Iraqis. They too cannot be cajoled into the process, but will need to be killed or captured. Our forces will continue to work with Iraqi ones to make sure these people are no longer able to keep Iraqis from governing themselves and leading peaceful lives.

Megan, from Arizona writes:
How long do you believe it will take for Iraq to completely stabalize and become accostomed to democracy? How long must the US offer support before things get better?

Meghan O'Sullivan
The President has emphasized in recent speeches that we need patience when assessing the progress and the road ahead in Iraq. In Bosnia, in Kosovo, and other places with histories of ethnic and civil strife, fair observers see that it takes time to establish a stable democratic system and overcome a difficult past. Does this mean U.S. troops will be conducting large operations in Iraq for the foreseeable future? No. As Iraqi capabilities improve, and local governance structures are enhanced, our forces will take on a much different posture – one that is focused more on operations to hunt, kill, or capture the hard-core terrorists and Saddamists. The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq – a document that you can find on the White House web site – explains this process in more detail. But the political process and the habits of democracy will need years to deepen and mature. And we are committed to seeing the process through. As the President has said, the goal is a stable and enduring democracy in Iraq. Our Strategy Document explains that, “an enduring democracy is not built through elections alone: critical components include transparent, effective institutions and a national constitutional compact.” As has been the case in other countries, it will take time for these institutions to develop. But as we see Iraqis go to the polls to elect a government under a democratic constitution, we are reminded of how far Iraqis have come.

Rosaurea, from NC writes:
i am a teacher and i want to work in Iraq, where can i apply to such a job? is there any contracter that would take my apllication? i have aMA in education

Meghan O'Sullivan
Thank you for your interest and desire to get involved. We need the best people in America to volunteer some time and services on behalf of this vital mission. And it is not only our troops and their families that are being asked to make a sacrifice for gains in Iraq. There is also a large and important role for civilians like yourself. In fact, over time, our commitment to the Iraqi people will begin to shift more and more from a military to civilian effort.

The State Department can point you in the right direction and try to match your talents to current needs. I would encourage you to contact the State Department, through this website for the latest information on how to serve:

As you know, serving in Iraq is not without risk. But in my experience – which included more than a year in Iraq – the ability to make a difference in one of the most important issues of our time outweighs the risks. But every decision must be based on your own life circumstances. Find out everything you can, consult your friends and family, and make an informed decision. If do choose to serve, you will work with incredible people, and do remarkable things. I wish you all the best.

Dan, from Peoria,IL writes:
Ma'am, I wanted to know why the President waited till this past week to respond to the critics of our policies in Iraq? I want you to know that it is important to the troops that they know they are being supported in the press. With so many government officials critical of our efforts, and the media accomadating their grandstanding, who will actually know what good works are really being done. Thank you for your time, and Merry Christmas.

Respectfully, Capt Daniel Tingwall

Meghan O'Sullivan
Thank you, Dan. Your question is a good one and raises a point we must never forget: our troops in Iraq are doing a tremendous job – and their fight is as noble as any our nation has undertaken. Along with Iraqi security forces, our troops have fought tough urban battles in places like Fallujah and Najaf, they have fought in the Euphrates River Valley, and along the Syrian border, clearing out villages of terrorists so people can vote and participate in politics for the first time in their lives. At the same time, our troops are helping with Iraqi efforts to rebuild schools, restore infrastructure, and working with local officials to enhance local governance capacity. Unfortunately, these efforts take place beyond the headlines, and rarely make the news. I would encourage you to periodically check websites such as, which report on the efforts of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the field.

There is a good op-ed in today’s Washington Post by a Major returning to Iraq for his third tour. He discusses why so many in the military are optimistic about the progress being made in Iraq – they know Iraqis and they have seen with their own eyes the dramatic changes taking place.

To most of us who have spent significant time in Iraq, the stateside debate can seem jarring – and rarely appears to adequately reflect much of what is happening on the ground. Has progress been difficult? Yes. Will it take more time and sacrifice to help Iraq secure its democratic gains? Yes. But that is because what we are doing is so momentous: Iraq for thirty years lived under a cruel tyranny that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. We are now less than three years removed from that tyranny – and we are less than 24-hours away from Iraq electing its first democratic government under a democratic constitution that was written by elected leaders and approved in a nationwide referendum. This kind of context is vital to assessing anything in Iraq. The President has in recent speeches, and in our National Strategy document, explained the progress that has been made, but also the many challenges ahead, and how we are working to overcome them.

You can read the National Strategy document on the White House website (National Strategy for Victory in Iraq). The document provides links to more resources, such as congressional report, and reports from the field on the progress in training Iraqi security forces. I urge anyone interested in our policy and our strategy in Iraq to read this document carefully. It is a comprehensive account of how we are organized and what we are doing to succeed.

solomon, from san leandro, ca writes:
Why aren't we articulating to the American people that a successful outcome in Iraq's democratic transition from tyranny determines our future, the future of the free world and the survival of democracy as a legitimate and sustainable system of government for the people by the people as we know it? That said, I would also hope that we encourage and support civic societies around the world who are struggling to overcome authoritarian regimes. For example, Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran, are states that support terror and terrorism against innocent people. We should show the enemy that we are one, unflinching and indivisible and we will pay any price to support freedom and democracy anywhere and everywhere in the world. Our options are to succeed, succeed and succeed at all costt.

Meghan O'Sullivan

Solomon, thank you for your comment. I agree with you about the importance of describing the stakes for America in success in Iraq. As the President has articulated in his recent speeches, the outcome of the war in Iraq directly affects the American people. As I mentioned earlier, some of our enemies in Iraq are terrorists, those affiliated with Al Qaeda. They are part of a larger terrorist network that is challenging the United States – and our way of life – globally. They want to gain uncontested control of Iraq and its many resources to serve as a base from which they gain wage attacks against moderate countries in the region – and against the United States. We saw with Afghanistan in the last decade the consequences of leaving a group like Al Qaeda to operate without check. So it is in our interests to see that the terrorists are defeated in Iraq so they do not use that country as a safe haven to plan attacks. But it is also in our national security interests to help Iraqis secure their country as a democracy. Democracy – the right of people to chose their own leaders and hold them to account – can combat the alienation that many in the Middle East have felt from their governments for decades. Given that this alienation is what has fueled terrorism against us and our friends, establishing democratic institutions will have security dividends. And, as the President has said, freedom and democracy are also the morals and ideas upon which our country was founded. So here, our security interests and our principles intersect directly.

Nicole, from Seattle writes:
What is the significance of a purple finger?

Meghan O'Sullivan
Well, when you see an Iraqi with a purple finger, it means they have voted. The permanent ink is a way to prevent fraud and keep people from voting twice. You may see some Americans this week with a purple finger. Most of them have dipped their fingers in ink to show their solidarity with the Iraqi people (although some of them are Iraqi Americans that have voted for real in Out of Country Voting Centers!) That is the literal answer.

But perhaps your question is metaphorical? In that case, I would say the purple finger signifies the universal striving for freedom – a theme the President emphasized again today. I draw inspiration from the remarkable perseverance of the Iraqi people – they have shown the world again and again that they want democracy and they will do the hard work to build a stable democratic state.

Michael, from Powell, TN writes:
Could you explain the type of national government we encourage the Iraqis to have?

Meghan O'Sullivan

There are two ways to answer your question. First by describing the structure of government the Iraqis will have after their election. The new Iraqi constitution puts forward a parliamentary system, so the elections (after several weeks of vote counting) will produce an assembly. This assembly will chose a 3-person Presidency council by a 2/3 vote of the body. As you can imagine, reaching this threshold will take lots of negotiation and is one of the reasons why we – and the Iraqi people – will have to wait for several weeks or even months before the new leadership of their country is known. In this way, the Iraqi system is very different than ours. This Presidency council will then unanimously pick a Prime Minister, who will choose his cabinet and be confirmed by the parliament. All these complicated mechanisms were put in place to encourage cooperation across communities, in an environment where there is still much mistrust.

The second way I could answer your question is by describing the nature of the new government we hope to see after the elections. Although it is for the Iraqi people to decide who is elected, we are hopeful that the coalitions they build after the elections are broad and inclusive, giving all communities a voice in shaping the new Iraq. As I mentioned earlier, this is key to undermining the insurgency and bringing all Iraqis into the political process. We also see the need for a very effective government. Iraq has many large economic, political, and security challenges and the new government must have the will and the competence to tackle them, even with the significant help it will receive from the United States and the international community.

Meghan O'Sullivan
Many thanks for joining me today to talk about the progress and challenges facing Iraq - and to discuss the importance of succeeding in our efforts there. We are lucky to live in historical times, and to be a country that has the ability, resources, and vision to help others secure their freedom. We should give a lot of credit to each and every Iraqi who votes tomorrow, as in many cases, he or she will be risking his or her life to do so. But we should also be proud of the efforts of our military and diplomats in Iraq - as well as people back home who support them -- who helped make this election and this historical transition possible.

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