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Robert Ford
Robert Ford
Counselor for Political Affairs, United States Embassy Baghdad, Iraq

March 30, 2006

Robert Ford
Hello everyone - I'm the head of the American Embassy's Political Affairs Office where we have 17 State Department diplomatic staff working on democracy and human rights issues as well as US-Iraqi political relations. I won't pretend to be the world's expert on Iraq, but I'm happy to share my thoughts and perspectives after working on Iraqi political issues close-up for nearly 2 years in Baghdad plus three months in the Shia holy city of Najaf.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Counselor Ford: Just how far along are we in getting an Iraq Government up and running? How much progress has been made? Thank You

Robert Ford
Cliff, Iraqi political and religious leaders have made a real progress toward standing up their permanent government. They have agreed on three important policy-making measures: (a) they agreed to a set of by-laws by which their cabinet secretaries will make decisions; (b) standing up a new, national security council to bring top officials from the presidency, prime ministry, parliament and political blocs to coordinate policy decisions; (c) they made up a list of top policy questions that their new national unity government must address as a priority.

Of course, there are still big decisions to be made. They still have to finalize the choice of Prime Minister and his deputies, President and his deputies, the parliament leadership, as well as the cabinet ministers. However, there is a much greater sense of progress and purpose now.

Our Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in with them everyday, urging them to focus hard on decisions and maintain their intensive rounds of negotiations. He is also urging them to keep in their minds the needs of the all the Iraqis negotiating and thus he is encouraging the Iraqis to bring realistic demands to the table.

Peter, from Windsor writes:
Dear Counselor Robert S. Ford: Could you comment on the challenges of encouraging the formation of a unity government in Iraq, especially comparing the U.S.'s 200 years and today in a time of war, a unity government in the U.S. is a fuzzy example? Also I am thinking of driving two hours to hear Yitzhak Nakash, author of "Shiis of Iraq", give a speech at the World Affairs Council, are you able to comment on this book and should I go?

Robert Ford
I think your point about the time frame is a good one, Peter. The challenges of reinforcing and consolidating the new Iraqi state are huge. We should not expect immediate results. One of the big problems the Iraqi leaders are addressing now is the legacy of fear and mistrust that Saddam Hussein left behind. The Shia are resentful for years of persecution and discrimination against them during the old regime. The Kurds have suffered huge casualties from Saddam and his henchmen.

Although Sunni Arabs also suffered under Saddam, because they were the ruling sect in Iraq for so long, many of the other groups hold all Sunni Arabs responsible for Saddam’s crimes. On top of that legacy, there are killings -- assassinations, car bombs and other terror attacks -- daily in Baghdad and the provinces in central and Western Iraq (not many in the North and South, however) that aggravate fears and tensions. Getting elected leaders from all these communities - Shia, Kurds and Sunni Arabs at the same table talking about standing up a government is quite new for them. It didn't happen during CPA, it didn't happen during the Coalition Provisional Authority period from May 2003 to June 2004; it didn't happen during the stand-up of the Iraqi Transitional Government in the Spring of 2005 (there were very few elected Sunni Arabs, which was a serious problem). We worked very hard especially with the Sunni Arab community last year to convince them to join the political process, while we also worked to reassure the Shia and Kurds we would not sell them out to some weird new Baathist regime (they really worried about that). Now, in the Spring of 2006 we finally have the elected leaders all on the same page. Thus, we should have a permanent government more able to address the real and serious sectarian splits in Iraq as well as address the real economic problems facing Iraq.

Nakash's book is excellent and provides lots of good context for understanding the biggest community in Iraq - I don't know how good a speaker he is, but he's definitely an expert in his field.

Greg, from North Carolina writes:
How will the democratic government be made to appease the various sects of Islam and prevent a civil war?

Robert Ford
As I noted earlier, there are real and serious sectarian divides in Iraq. The aftermath of the February 22 bombing of the Shia holy site in Samarra served in some ways as a wake-up call to the Iraqi political and religious leadership.

They are keenly aware of the danger of wider sectarian conflict, especially along the fault lines where the the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni Arab communities come together (like Baghdad). The government we are helping to stand up will have elected representatives from all these communities - local leaders of real standing (something we just haven't had from all three communities before). They are agreeing to work as a team to address a pressing list of issues ranging from security to de-baathification to government hiring/firing. All the communities have grievances, but the political leaders have agreed to work together on them. Sectarian divides don't disappear in a year or two or three (the Middle East is full of examples).

Iraq's constitution has numerous protections of human rights and basic freedoms - the best constitution of any country in the Arab world in that regard. (The State Department helped fund experts to come out and discuss various legal constructs with the Iraqi drafters, and they took on board some of what they learned. Our Embassy, meanwhile, lobbied hard with the drafters on issues like freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and women's rights.)

As Iraqi security forces gradually restore security throughout the troubled central regions of Iraq where these fault lines are mostly located, and the rule of law takes hold, the protections in that constitution for all of Iraq's communities will help begin to diminish the fear that drives much of the sectarian violence. It will, however, take time.

David, from West Palm Beach, Florida writes:
Mr. Ford,Midpoint accomplishments in past wars have consisted of winning strategic battlegrounds. Most of our accomplishments in the Iraq war are quite different: building schools, creating democratic organizations, etc. What other accomplishments have made the Iraq war unusual? (I wish the administration would tout them more; its actually a very successful war). Thank you, David

Robert Ford
David - Sitting here, I just ran off a list: toppling a dictator; handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi people in June 2004; standing up a new Iraqi army that 6 months ago had about 2/3 of an Army infantry division and now has 2 full infantry divisions and is still growing and taking over more and more of the battlefield every month (our military here says they have returned to Iraqi control 34 of 110 operating military bases now); getting a constitution written in the autumn of 2005 - a huge effort, let me tell you; helping the Iraqis hold three elections (for a transitional parliament in January 2005, a constitutional referendum in October 2005 and for a permanent parliament in December 2005, plus elections for state-level legislatures in January 2005 and then their electing state governors); standing up a central criminal court and getting credible judges in place to start criminal trials.

Unlike winning strategic military battles, however, these "battlegrounds" will require constant work and attention from the Iraqis and a shared political vision among Iraqis. The national unity government will not be perfect (what government is?) but it should keep them on the right track.

Paul, from California writes:
Dear Mr. Ford, It is being said that progress in Iraq is not being reported. I really do want to know what progress is being made. Can you please provide a specific set of metrics (rather than anecdotes) that demonstrate this progress - say in terms of GDP, employment, electricity output, oil output, clean water provision, education, human rights improvements, number of insurgent attacks, number of US service causualities, number of indepently operating Iraqi military and security forces, etc., and provide us with historical data, from before April 2003, where relevent, up until the present. Thank you for reporting on the progress being made in Iraq, and thank you for your service to our nation. Sincerely, Paul Worhach

Robert Ford
Paul, I don’t think I have room here to answer all the different aspects of your question in this forum, but let me cite a couple of key things: (a) GDP grew last year about 2.5 percent, according to the IMF. That's not bad, considering the sabotage against infrastructure, and the IMF predicts roughly 10 percent GDP growth this year; (b) on human rights, one of my favorite topics, we played a huge role in Iraq getting a new constitution done that has the best human rights protections in the region, including on freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association and women's rights. There are big problems with human rights violations still, as we noted in our 2006 annual report on the human rights situation in Iraq (you can find that report on the web), but we have American teams working directly with the Iraqi police, and training and judicial strengthening programs underway to address those problems; (c) on the Iraqi military, they now have 2 full infantry divisions whereas 2 years ago when I came here to open the Embassy they had zero. Those Iraqi forces are still growing. In three of the past five months the number of Iraqi independent military operations exceeded the number of operations that our forces were involved in.

I got some of this data from a State Department's website that can answer most of your queries. It is important to keep in mind though, that metrics alone won’t give you a full picture of the scope of progress being made in this war. Changing a country’s political structure, assuaging years of mistrust, and providing generations of Iraqi children – boys and girls – with a new future is not measurable only in numbers.

Dee, from Neskowin writes:
Do you have time frame for when all the rebuilding and democracy will be done? How close are we to achieving our goals in Iraq? Its hard to support this project when we are all in the dark about it, also it just seems to me that this war is dragging on. Although if the American people can see the light out of the end of the tunnel I think more of them would get behind and support our President. Thank you for doing this question and answer session.

Robert Ford
I can't give you an end date for the project. We should have a permanent, democratically elected national government within a few weeks. That said, there is still plenty to do here.

Notably, the security situation is still tough; as I sat typing here, I heard a bomb in the distance. The Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better. When I went to the battle of Najaf in August 2004 to advise the Marines' commander, the Iraqis had only a few troops next to ours, and they lasted three days only.

Last December in operations along the Syrian border aimed at shutting off terrorist infiltration, the Iraqis outnumbered our forces and stayed in the battle throughout the month it lasted. Those of us who remember how little the Iraqi army could do in 2004 now see light at the end of the tunnel as we see their forces coming onto the field. I can't tell you how long our troops will be here, however.

In the end, we need both good Iraqi security forces and to dry up some of the support for the insurgency among restive communities here - and that means a good political process where Iraqi people think their government will address their problems fairly. The new, democratically elected government, which includes elected representatives from even the roughest parts of Iraq like Anbar province, will be a big step forward. We are reducing our troops and aid to Iraq over time, but we will still be working very closely with the Iraqi government with training and advice to help it satisfy its citizens needs.

john, from texas writes:
How far along is the training program for Iraq's military? For instance how many helicopter pilots have we trained? Are they getting the equipment they need? Do some of their units come to the US for advanced training? We hear about 3 different factions in their society. Are the soldiers of different backgrounds integrated together in their units?

Robert Ford
John, I’m going to defer on the specifics of training programs to our military, but I can tell you that there are three major communities in Iraqi society: the Shia, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds. The Shia and the Sunnis are Arabs, but of different religious sects. The Kurds – though mostly of the Sunni sect - are a separate ethnic group and primarily see themselves as Kurds, not Arabs. There are a few integrated military units, and we are working on establishing more.

During 2004 and 2005 the Sunni Arabs refused to join the army - it was a kind of protest. Now, after the December 2005 elections in which they voted in huge numbers, they are joining the army by the thousands. That's real progress.

As I’m sure you know, an important Shia mosque located in a predominately Sunni Arab province was bombed by terrorists on February 22 this year. Despite the confusion and hot emotions of that day and those that followed, the Iraqi Security Forces held together and reduced the sectarian violence. With more time and training, the Iraqi forces will be both politically credible to all of Iraq's communities and militarily able to stand alone without our help.

Chris, from Michigan writes:
Dear Sir, Will the United States continue to fund and employ US government agencies to sustain Iraqi Reconstruction in the distant future? Is this effort comparable to the Marshall Plan of WWII? Thank you for taking this question.

Robert Ford
Chris - Excellent question. I don't think the work in Iraq yet equals that of the Marshall Plan, but it is certainly the largest reconstruction effort in the history of the Middle East.

Iraq still has far to go; electricity service, for example, is still not where we want it to be, although it is improving. Realistically, some U.S. government agencies will continue to be involved in assisting the Iraqis for some time.

That said, the international community has a huge role to play here; Iraq and the U.S. cannot fix all of Iraq's reconstruction problems alone. Thus, we are urging other donor countries and international agencies to honor their pledges made at the Madrid Conference in October 2003. The President has requested additional funding for Iraqi reconstruction projects. For more detailed information, let me send you to the State Department’s report on Advancing the President’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.

Michael, from College Park writes:
Why does the President and his administration keep denying thatthere is a civil war in Iraq? If the sectarian divisions that Bush alluded to in his last speech are committing acts of violence against one another, then isn't that by definition a "civil war"??

Robert Ford
Michael - In the aftermath of the February 22 Samarra mosque bombing, it's true that we did see a big spasm in sectarian violence. It was limited, however, to Baghdad, Babil, Diyala and Basrah provinces - four of Iraq's eighteen provinces. Most of Iraq - the North, the South and the East - are free of much sectarian violence on any given day.

The center -- Baghdad, Diyala, Babil and eastern Anbar, are where the Shia and Sunni communities meet and here the problems have been more serious. There is still alot of killing going on, and the Ambassador has spoken in public and privately to leaders about the dangers of sectarian violence.

It is important to recognize that Iraqi political and religious leaders immediately after the February 22 bombing called for calm and denounced the acts of violence that had occurred. Iraqi political leaders from all groups met in emergency sessions with the Prime Minister to talk about concrete steps they could take to reassure the public and their constituencies. I sat in one of those meetings and they were quite blunt with each other but they also realized that they had to work together.

In the aftermath of that bombing, Iraq’s leaders are meeting daily to hammer out a broadly inclusive and effective government that can unify the country. We are in many of those meetings with them urging them to consider alternatives, look for creative compromises and to be realistic with each other.

Jason, from Cleveland, Ohio writes:
How hard is it to establish a democracy that represents both religious freedom and freedom of speech while being respectful to the views and ideals of Islam? What progress has been made in such a democracy? Thanks.

Robert Ford
Jason, I've worked in the Arab World for almost 20 years. There are two forces at work in the Arab World now: those who want more freedom of choice and religious fundamentalists who want to shut choice off. In a sense, Iraq is the key battleground now. Interestingly, religious parties here, on both the Shia and Sunni side, have accepted the principle, enshrined in a constitution, of freedom of speech, freedom of thought and religion and even things like freedom to choose which kind of family law court - religious or secular. In a sense, Iraq is a crucible this way. I have Egyptian and Bahraini friends who've written me in the past few months and told me that people in those countries watch the democratic process here with huge interest.

Mark, from San Antonio, Texas writes:
Some media reports have stated that much of the insurgency is being carried out by third country nationals (TCNs). Is the Iraqi government considering its own immigration laws and policy as a means of combating such "imported" trouble-makers?

Robert Ford
Mark - Third country nationals, like Zarqawi, are responsible for much of the fighting against American and Iraqi forces. Iraq has implemented stringent border controls and shut down some border entry points entirely. The biggest problem is people sneaking across open desert or getting past inefficient border control points. We have American military and civilian personnel working with the Iraqi border police and the Iraqi military to tighten controls and access. Our sense is that we are having some success shutting down foreigners' infiltration routes.

Ultimately, however, most of the insurgency comes from Iraqi sources and we are pushing on political, military and economic tracks to undermine the support insurgents enjoy in some parts of the country.

Norman, from Southfield, Michigan writes:
Dear Mr. Ford,Yesterday, The President had his third cabinet meeting, our Secretary of State suggested that our cabinet members develop relationships with there counterparts in Iraq. ( I believe this is a very important step for us to take. ) The question I have is, Have you developed a time table for this to happen and if so can we provide them with expertise to develop there country ?? Thanks Norm

Robert Ford
Norman - Ambassador Khalilzad and the President have insisted we develop detailed plans on how to help get the Iraqis to address their security, economic and political problems. (I work on the latter.) We have been working off these detailed plans for the past year. Iraq is still a very undeveloped country, not so different from Cameroon, in central Africa, where I worked 7 years ago, and it needs a lot of help from the U.S. and from other countries too; we should not be the only ones to provide help. Many U.S. Government cabinet agencies, including the Departments of Treasury, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, USAID and the FBI, not to mention the Pentagon, are working with us out here, and we are considering whether additional help would be useful once the new Iraqi government gets stood up and tells us what its priorities will be.

John, from Apex, NC writes:
We hear a lot about the sectarian violence in Iraq. How will the Iraqis achieve a peaceful "democratic" solution to this problem if there is as much animosity among the squabbling groups as the media would leave us to believe? Enough of them seem not to trust one another to keep things stirred up for generations. It seems to resemble Northern Ireland to me.

Robert Ford
John - Sectarian violence IS a big problem in Iraq; it always has been, and Saddam made it worse. The good news is that there are political and religious leaders reaching across the divide. What I most remember amidst all the violence was a group of hardline Sunni clerics joining a group of hardline Shia clerics (Moqtada Sadr's loyalists) on February 25 and performing prayers together and then holding a joint press conference at the end of which they held hands and shouted "Islam is one religion! Allah is most great!" Even for a foreigner like me, it was a very powerful image and all the Iraqis I know were very moved by it.

What we are doing is (a) getting Iraqi security forces more able to find and stop terrorists - there are plenty of bombs defused everyday that people don't read about back home - not news and (b) getting communities to marginalize the extremists in their midst - just shun them and turn them over to the police if they are violent. We are pushing hard on the Iraqis to stand up a national unity government with both Shia and Sunnis that will help bring the communities together and start rebuilding trust that would encourage communities to marginalize the extremists in their midst.

Jim, from Ocala, FL writes:
I understand the President gave a stirring extemporaneous talk in Wheeling WVA regarding the war effort, and, as expected, it was essentially not covered by the press. Is there a transcript or some other way I can enjoy his remarks?

Robert Ford
Yes, Jim. The President delivered remarks last Wednesday (March 22, 2006) at Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling, West Virginia. A transcript from the event may be found on the White House website here:

You may also find his comments to the Freedom House yesterday of interest:

Morris, from Brooklyn, NY writes:
Dear Mr. Ford: Wouldn't Iraq be better off, and with much less violence and problems, if the country were split into three separate provinces? One for the Sunnis, one for the Shiites, and one for the Kurds.

Robert Ford
Morris - I have not in my 2+ years here yet met an Iraqi who thinks this would be a good idea. They want to stay a single country and they have had one for the past 85 years. They also want to get their security situation under control, they want to have safe streets and a growing economy. We very much want for Iraq to remain a united country, both because that is what its people want but also because the division of Iraq could add to instability in the Middle East which has more than enough instability as it is. For exactly that reason, Iraq's neighbors all want it to stay a single country too.

Alan, from Brentwood, TN writes:
Mr. Ford, why have we opened up dialogue with Iran concerning the progress of democracy and the new government in Iraq? Is it not a major concern that the two could ally against us and American interests in the future?

Robert Ford
Alan - I don't think the Iraqis will join up with Iran against us. The political leaders of Iraq all are our friends and want our help. The Iranians are being most unhelpful now in Iraq - helping armed groups and interfering in the political process. We need to tell them clearly what they must cease doing while also underlining that Iran would benefit from having a strong Iraq that has regular, friendly relations with all its neighbors, including Iran.

Robert Ford
It's just after 11 PM Baghdad time and I still need to clean out the rest of my inbox upstairs. I appreciate the opportunity to explain to folks back home what is happening here and what we are doing to fix the real problems that Iraq has. Let me also just say that people at this Embassy have high spirits because despite the dangers of working in a war zone everyone here recognizes how important our work is for the future of the Middle East and thus for America. Thank you back home for your support and best wishes from Baghdad, Robert.