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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
Director for Iraq National Security Council
July 27, 2006

Brett McGurk
Hello again. We just finished a series of meetings between Prime Minister Maliki, President Bush, and other top U.S. officials. I'm happy to talk about the visit as well as other issues pertaining to Iraq. So let's get started.

Janet, from Vermont writes:
Thank you for taking the time to answer questions from ordinary people like me. I was wondering why Prime Minister Maliki chose this time, when the people of Baghdad are experiencing a high level of violence and many, many deaths, to leave Iraq and visit the U.S.?

Brett McGurk
Janet, during the President’s visit to Baghdad six weeks ago (June 13, 2006), the Prime Minister set forth his agenda and explained specifically what he planned to do to improve the economic and security situation in his country.

The President offered ways in which the United States is prepared to help. Appropriate and effective U.S. assistance was also the topic of the Camp David meetings the President hosted with his national security team and cabinet members before flying to Baghdad. You can review the information sheet that we released after those meetings to get a sense of where we are directive our efforts, and how the entire U.S. government is working to support the mission.

Since the President’s visit, the Prime Minister has announced a series of initiatives, including his Reconciliation and National Dialogue Plan and an ambitious and far-reaching economic agenda. Both leaders thought this would be an appropriate time for more face-to-face discussions on the progress that is being made, the principal challenges ahead, and how the United States and Iraq can work together to overcome them.

The purpose of the meeting, therefore, was for the two leaders to roll up their sleeves, assess what is working and is not working, and review the tactical adjustments being made. And this is precisely what happened. The President and the Prime Minister met for a closed one-on-one session for 70 minutes. Nobody else was in the Oval Office – just the President, the Prime Minister, and a translator. The session had been scheduled for 30 minutes, but both leaders chose to spend the additional time alone, in what was clearly a detailed discussion about the way forward. The President and Prime Minister were then joined by an expanded group, including the Iraqi Ministers of Trade, Oil, Electricity, Human Rights, and the Foreign Minister. The ministers discussed the work of their ministries, the progress that is being made, and the challenges ahead.

These discussions are summarized in a fact sheet released after the visit. A fact sheet, however, cannot fully capture what is most important: that these are two leaders who recognize the tremendous challenges before them, are resolute and committed to overcoming them, and have pledged to work together to do so.

It was clear from a lunch held in the Old Family Dining Room that the President and the Prime Minister have developed a strong, personal relationship. They are deadly serious about what needs to be accomplished, and able to discuss the multi-dimensional nature of the issues in depth and with candor. This is precisely the sort of relationship one would want them to have at this historical moment. So, the visit was important for strengthening this personal working relationship and ensuring that we are making the right tactical adjustments together to improve the situation in Iraq.

On the recent violence – which is primarily sectarian-driven, tit-for-tat violence centered on Baghdad – the President and Prime Minister spent considerable time talking through the way forward, including adjustments to the Baghdad security plan. The discussions were particularly timely and useful in this regard.

Kim, from Kentucky writes:
Hi Brett, Pres. Bush discussed the re-distribution of U.S. troops with more troops being stationed in Iraq at this time. Has the insurgency grown in numbers or in the severity of its attacks? Are the attacks Sunni against Shiite or are they purely motivated to cause civil unrest? Thank You

Brett McGurk
Kim, there is no question that the security situation in recent months has grown in complexity, with an increase in sectarian-driven violence. It is important to understand, first, what is driving this increase; and second, what we think the solution will be over the short, medium, and long term.

The drivers for the sectarian violence are twofold. First, as Ambassador Khalilzad explained recently in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, terrorists have adapted to expanding participation in the political process by exploiting Iraq's sectarian fault lines with focused mass-casualty and highly-symbolic attacks.

The most notable of these attacks was the bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra this past February. The destruction of this holy site greatly impacted the psyche of Iraq's Shi'a community, and the attack has been followed by mass casualty bombings in Shi'a areas of Iraq.

Second, some radical Shi'a and Sunni groups have recently turned on one another, causing a further escalation of violence, particularly in and around the capital. In his last public statement before his death, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi condemned the Jaysh al-Mahdi, a Shi'a militia group which claims loyalty to Moqtada al-Sadr. Zarqawi had earlier carved Jaysh al-Mahdi out of his calls for "all out war" against Iraqi Shi'a. Shortly after this reversal by Zarqawi, major car bombings occurred in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, and the Jaysh al-Mahdi has responded with reprisal attacks.

The result has been a cycle of violence which is suffocating many parts of the capital. Since Zarqawi's death, we have made strides in breaking down the Al Qaeda network in Iraq – but we have also found evidence of a highly sophisticated terrorist operation in and around Baghdad.

The short term solution to this problem lies in adjustments to the Baghdad security plan, and an increase in operational tempo against the death squads (Sunni, Shi'a, and regular criminal elements) now terrorizing certain neighborhoods.

The President and the Prime Minister discussed these adjustments and spoke about them generally during their joint press availability. I will not get into operational details, but generally speaking we will be repositioning forces (Iraqi and Coalition) into Baghdad and changing the operational concept of the security plan to focus on securing individual neighborhoods and gradually expanding a security zone.

This will be difficult work and we will not see results overnight. But commanders in the field believe this is the model best suited to the present environment and they will be measuring indicators in the coming weeks and months to make further adjustments as warranted.

You can get a sense of the operational changes – particularly increasing offense operations against death squads – by reading the transcript of a briefing Major General Caldwell gave in Baghdad earlier this week. I recommend reading it in full and reviewing the attached video and slides to see the heroic and noble efforts our troops are undertaking in Baghdad. Targeted operations area also ongoing in Ramadi – which has remained a terrorists haven, but is being returned (slowly and deliberately) to Iraqi government control.

The longer term solution to sectarian conflict requires political compromise, and the Iraqis are working very hard in the political sphere to build an enduring consensus on several issues (such as federalism, de-Ba'athification, and natural revenue allocation). I recommend reviewing Ambassador Khalilzad's Senate testimony for an more in-depth overview of these efforts.

Desiree, from Worcester, MA writes:
Dear Brett, I watched the press conference with the President and Iraqi PM this morning. I noticed the Iraqi PM doesn't smile, didn't seem happy or express gratitude for all the wonderful work and security our troops are providing. He should be thanking the President for his courage and leadership and steadfastness. I hear the Iraqi PM will be attending an event with our troops in Virginia on Wednesday, but today was a formal press conference, and I expected to see the Iraqi PM express his thanks to the President and troops and be grateful. Where's his manners ? Thanks for all you do. Regards, Desiree

Brett McGurk
Your question just popped up on my screen, but I see you wrote it before the Prime Minster’s public events yesterday. I think he did everything you recommend.

Let me first say a word about the Prime Minister. I traveled to Iraq shortly before his formal nomination and I worked closely with members of his staff. He was uniformly described as a "no-nonsense" man of action – who hated pomp. He wants to solve problems and get things done. Period. This assessment has proven right. Perhaps you sensed this seriousness in demeanor during the joint press conference, but you should not be left with the impression that he does not recognize and profoundly appreciate the opportunity America has given him and the people of Iraq.

The Prime Minister himself made this clear yesterday during his remarks to a Joint Session of Congress and in his remarks to American troops during a visit to Fort Belvoir, Virgina. These remarks have not received the attention they deserve. His message to our troops and their families was profound and moving:

"When I stand here in front of you and I salute you, I would like to appreciate what you have done and what you have achieved.

I appreciate your colleagues who offered their lives on the land of Iraq, and I tell you that Iraqis will never forget these sacrifices because they have really participated in ridding Iraq of dictatorship, one of the ugliest regimes that the region has known. And we are happy to be partners in this holy task of fighting terrorism and establishing democracy.

Iraq, because of what you have offered, because of what your sons have offered, your families have offered, has now moved from dictatorship to democracy; from oppression, torture chambers, chemical weapons, and now into a state of freedom, liberty and partnership; from depravation and absolute poverty, into the condition where we now are looking forward to economic prosperity, because Iraq is a rich country, and the previous regime has wasted all the wealth of Iraq in his adventures.

I sympathize with those who made sacrifices, and I sympathize with the families who have lost some loved ones. And I appreciate this sacrifice and this suffering, because I am one of the people who sacrificed and suffered in Iraq. The previous regime had sentenced me to death, and actually has executed 67 members of my family, relatives. And I can feel the bitterness of the loss when someone loses a dear member of his family, a son, or a spouse.

When blood mixes together in the field, aiming to achieve one goal, this blood will help in establishing a long-lasting relationship between us. Our relationship will stay forever."

He closed his remarks by saying "on behalf of myself and on behalf of the Iraqi people, I would like to thank you and thank your families. I would to appreciate your losses, your sacrifice, appreciate the bitterness of those who have lost loved ones…. And we feel pain and sorry for every drop of blood that falls in Iraq. But once again, we give you all the salute – we salute you and we thank you very much for all that you’ve offered in Iraq."

I often see quotes emphasized in news articles and by some politicians trying to paint a picture of an Iraq that is not appreciative of America and all that we are doing to help the Iraqis build a democracy after a generation of tyranny and terror. It is true that opinion in Iraq is mixed – as it is in any free society. But I would take the Prime Minister here at his word. He represents perhaps the broadest political coalition of any democracy, and he is expressing the sentiment of the vast majority of Iraqis.

The Prime Minister is also staking out his ground as a strong Muslim leader in the war on terrorism. In his address to Congress he eloquently quoted the Koran to shame those who falsely claim a pretext of Islam to take innocent life, saying: "The fact of the matter is that terrorism has no religion, as our religion tells us that 'whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for murder or other wicked crimes, should be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind.'" I hope you will read his speech in full.

The Prime Minister left the United States last night to travel to Jordan where he will confer with King Abdullah, another strong leader in this common struggle. There was loose talk from some quarters during the early portion of the Prime Minister's visit about his not being committed to the fight on account of his call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. The President and the Prime Minister discussed the Lebanon situation and they both agreed on the urgency of alleviating humanitarian distress in Lebanon and the importance of strengthening the Lebanese government and supporting the Lebanese people. They did not agree about everything – but world leaders rarely do. In terms of the broader struggle agaisnt terrorism, Maliki before Congress left no doubt on where he and his country stands:

"Wherever humankind suffers a loss at the hands of terrorists, it is a loss of all humanity. It is your duty and our duty to defaet this terror. Iraq is the front line in this struggle, and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vail. Iraqis are your allies in the war on terror."

Nicholas, from New York writes:
Director McGurk, I am constantly amazed at the progress the Iraqi people are making on a day-to-day basis. However, could you elaborate on the kind of progress that has been made in regards to brining Sunnis, Shites and Kurds together?

Brett McGurk
Nicholas, there is progress in this critical areas – but much more to do. In describing the overall situation in Iraq, Ambassador Khalilzad said recently that Americans should be "tactically patient, but strategically optimistic."

I would echo that sentiment. Iraq for the first time has a political process that includes all major communities in Iraq. This was a result of the December elections, and the broad turnout in all parts of the country, which has resulted in authentic leaders from all communities coming together in Baghdad to debate and negotiate a common path forward.

There has been a fundamental shift in particular among Sunni Arabs – who a year ago stood outside the political process and were hostile to the United States. Sunni Arabs are now full participants in the political process, with representation proportional to their share of the population and they have largely come to see the Untied States as a force for good in the new Iraq. This is a major strategic shift and it sets the foundation for all sides to negotiate a durable and democratic compact, further isolate extremists, and allow the central government to expand its power and influence.

Having all sides engaged, however, is obviously not enough. Politicians need to make tough decisions and deliver, and that is what the Prime Minister is working to do. The President and the Prime Minister discussed the Prime Minister's national reconciliation initiative in detail. The initiative was formally announced about a month ago, but it took its first tangible steps only this past Saturday when Prime Minister Maliki announced the formation of a National Council to lead the implementation effort. The National Council is made up of 30 religious, political, tribal, and civil society leaders; they have the respect of their communities, and they have a big challenge ahead of them.

The need for tactical patience – and strategic optimism – is embodied in this reconciliation initiative. It identifies the right issues and structures a process for building compromises, but it will take time and patience to implement in a manner that brings durable results. The issues to be confronted are large:

  • Reforming the de-ba'athification process so that only those guilty of actual crimes are barred from full participation in Iraq’s political life.
  • Ensuring that Iraqi Security Forces protect the Iraqi people but also protect their human rights and operate under the rule of law.
  • Pursuing some form of amnesty for Iraqis who have been opposed to the political process, perhaps violently opposed, but now wish to join in.
  • Reining in militias and illegal armed groups to ensure that civilian authorities have a monopoly on force and can further the rule of law.

The process for resolving such issues will be non-linear, and they will not be resolved overnight. But a unity government for the first time offers Iraqis the chance to craft a national consensus on these and other issues. We will be working with the Iraqis in the coming months (as will the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Community, and others) to provide support and assistance as the reconciliation process unfolds.

Iraqis are optimistic that this process can deliver results; in a recent poll, an overwhelming majority -- 89%, said the new unity government is extremely important to Iraq’s future. Iraq's leaders now must work diligently to fulfill the confidence the Iraqi people have given them. Ambassador Khalilzad and our team in Baghdad will be working with the Iraqis everyday to move this process forward in a constructive way.

Erin, from Santa Rosa, CA writes:
Do you feel the Iraqi Dinar is ready for the international market?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, Erin. This is the first economic-related issues I’ve received – and I’d like to use it to broaden the discussion. On the Dinar, specifically, the news is fairly good. Since the introduction of a unified currency and foreign exchange auctions, Iraq’s exchange rate has been relatively stable and this has allowed the Central Bank of Iraq to better manage inflationary pressures. Inflation is still a potential problem in Iraq, but that the Central Bank is working closely with IMF experts to combat these pressures.

The Prime Minister and the President did not discuss the Dinar specifically, but they did discuss the Prime Minister’s economic agenda. It is fair to say that in only two months in office, we have seen a level of activity that surpasses action taken by the previous government over an entire year. Most economic indicators are in positive territory. Iraq has realized its highest oil production and export levels since before the war. Electricity hours of power jumped from 4 or 5 hours per day in Baghdad in April and May to on average 8 hours per day in June and July. Maliki and his new Minister of Electricity has been particular successful in improving security and repair response times, and they discussed these efforts with the President.

On July 12, Maliki presented a far-reaching economic speech to the Council of Representatives. The speech was one of the most reformist offered by an Arab leader in decades and put him on record for change in key areas of the economy. Maliki laid out his plans for new investment laws, anti-corruption measures, restored financial relationships with Gulf States, and initiatives to restore essential services through investment and reform. And he is following up. Maliki has directed each cabinet member to establish a comptroller and submit ethics and financial disclosure agreements. He has submitted an investment law to parliament which should be enacted before the end of this month. Fuel import liberalization laws are also pending in parliament and have been passed by the Council of Ministers. (This is a key initiative to facilitate private enterprise, undermine the black market, and improve the fuel supply.) The government has kept to IMF SBA schedules by increasing non-gasoline fuel prices on June 17, meeting an IMF benchmark.

This is in addition to Maliki reaching out to the international community to make Iraq a reliable economic partner. He has visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwiat to encourage them to invest in Iraq. And Iraq and the UN today announced the formal launch of the International Compact with Iraq. This Compact, jointly shared by the Government of Iraq and the Untied Nations, with the support of the World Bank, will, over the next five years, bring together the international community and multilateral organizations to help Iraq implement key reforms and grow fully integrated into the international economic community. You can read the UN's press release about this important initiative.

We are assisting the Iraqis in the economic area. Secretary Guitierrez and Secretary Bodman recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with their Iraqi counterparts, and more such visits will follow in the coming weeks. These efforts are all part of our integrated – political, economic, security – strategy for success in Iraq.

We understand, of course, that the security situation must stabilize for Iraq to truly flourish economically. There is also hard work to do on important piece of legislation, particularly in the petroleum area. But the Prime Minister is identifying the right priorities and moving forward with necessary reforms. During the lunch following the Oval Office meetings, the President heard from a number of Iraqi ministers on their ambitious agendas for increasing investment in Iraq, reforming Iraq’s massive subsidy programs, and bringing targeted job creation opportunities to lagging areas of the country (in particular Anbar Province where young men are prone to recruitment by terrorists and insurgent groups). Remember that unlike the transitional governments of the past three years, this new government may serve until 2010 – so the new ministers have both short and long term strategic goals.

Vance, from Topeka, KS writes:
Mr. McGurk, Was there any discussion about a time table for gradual withdraw of troops. I know our fine troops help train the Iraqis' so that they may have their own security forces, but it seems like they should be close to doing it themselves. Am I wrong in my assessment?

Brett McGurk
You raise a very good question, which gets to the heart of what we think about everyday. We are always assessing how much the Iraqis are able to take on – we push them to do as much as possible, but failure, especially in key strategic cities like Baghdad is not an option.

That is why we are adjusting our posture in Baghdad. Lt. General Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, recently gave a briefing in which he spells out some of the latest thinking on the training and transition effort.

The Iraqi Army is a real success story, but we still have challenges with the Iraqi police and the new government – in particular the new Minister of Interior – is working through those challenges with Lt. Gen. Dempsey and Gen. Casey.

The President and the Prime Minister also discussed these challenges. The Prime Minister understands that the only legitimate source of power, authority, and weaponry can be the Iraqi government and security forces loyal to official authorities. He has a strategy to make sure this is the case in Iraq and we are working closely with him to do this. From the Demspey briefing, you can get a fuller sense of the success and challenges in this area.

Brett McGurk
I am doing this chat today sandwiched between meetings – and I am sorry I couldn't get to all of your questions. However, I tried to pick a representative sample. There is obviously much more to say on Prime Minister Maliki's visit. The bottom line is that his visit allowed for serious meetings between two determined leaders who understand the challenges ahead and are adjusting tactics to overcome them. The Prime Minister is a strong partner for the United States – and I hope all Americans can support him as he pursues national reconciliation and takes on the terrorists and death squads in the coming weeks and months.

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