IRAQ: U.S. State Department's Jeffrey Feltman says new government must be 'inclusive'
The U.S. assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, is making his second visit to Baghdad in a month, checking in on the negotiations to form a new government.
In an interview with Babylon and Beyond, he talked about the efforts the United States making to hasten formation of a new government in the wake of the March elections, along with his hopes and fears for Iraq's future. Here are some excerpts:
Q: Are you concerned that U.S. troops may well complete their drawdown (to 50,000 by Sept. 1) before a new Iraqi government is formed?
A: I don't see the linkage between the U.S. troop withdrawal schedule and the government formation exercise, and I'll explain why. The U.S. troops withdrew from all the cities towns and villages in June last year. So since June of last year Iraqi security forces have been responsible for security in all the populated areas of Iraq. So, I don't see our fulfillment of President Obama's commitment to get down to 50,000 by Sept. 1 as having any intrinsic change on the ground.
Q: Does the U.S. have a preferred candidate?
We obviously have an interest in seeing the government of Iraq formed. We want to have a long -term partnership with Iraq. We want to work with Iraq to improve its relationship with its Sunni Arab neighbors. But we 're not playing any kind of name game here.
The United States simply isn't getting into the game of saying, we believe this candidate is appropriate for this particular job, that this candidate is how you achieve this kind of balance. It's got to be something the Iraqis decide for themselves. 2010 is not 2005. We're happy to play a consultative role, but in the context of Iraqis making the decisions.
Q: So what are you saying in your discussions with Iraqi leaders?
We're saying a lot of the things back to the Iraqis that the Iraqis are saying publicly. For example we hear the Iraqi leaders say publicly that they want an inclusive government. What we understand that means is a government in which all the communities in Iraq feel they have adequate and fair representation.
The elections were on March 7, and we're now well into June. It seems the Iraqi people themselves really want to see some results here, so we're trying to use the things we're hearing from the Iraqi leaders, from the Iraqi people, to push for some momentum in this process.
I do think there's a different type of discussions going on now than were going on one month ago. I suspect it is because of the certification of the results and because the opening of the Council of Representatives has put a new spark in this process.
Q: What changes have you noticed?
I get the sense that various leaders are looking at all the options that are available to them to protect what they see as their constituents' core interests. I don't feel the same sense I felt one month ago that people are focusing on only one idea. Now I feel the people feel they have a number of different options.
Q: Do you think we could have a repeat of the situation in 2005, when a government was formed that essentially shut out most of the Sunnis?
Iraqiya (the coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi) got 91 seats in the Council of Representatives. It seems to us that those 91 seats need to be taken into account both in the process and the results. I'm aware of the 2005 example of course. It seems to us that 2010 is different from 2005, and both the process and the results need to reflect the reality of the 2010 elections.
Q: How might that happen?
You do have examples that State of Law (Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's coalition) and Iraqiya are meeting at various levels, including the leadership level. I don't want to exaggerate and say there's suddenly going to be some kind of deal struck between those two blocs tomorrow, but dialogue is happening. I find that encouraging and we want to encourage more of it.
Q: One difference between 2005 and 2010 is that U.S. leverage has decreased. Are you concerned that a government could be formed that wouldn't reflect U.S. interests?
A: You have to ask what our interests are. Our interests are twofold. One is that we want a long-term partnership with Iraq, one that is civilian-led and based on mutual interest. A second U.S. interest is that we want to see an Iraq that is fully integrated into the region.
Q: Do you feel there's a risk of another sectarian war, or has that danger passed?
I don't think anyone should be complacent. There is a history here. But in general Iraqis have turned to politics rather than violence as reflected in the political spectrum, as reflected in the elections and these are encouraging signs.
Q: What is the worst-case scenario for the road ahead, and what is the best?
I think that right now a worst-case scenario is that the government formation process be deadlocked to the point where institutions stop functioning. I don't see that happening, but one has to keep that in mind that that could happen.
There are just a number of scenarios that are positive scenarios.… I would say an Iraq that is sovereign and self-reliant, that integrates into the region, where Iraq's communities feel their interests are represented.
-- Liz Sly in Baghdad
Photo: Jeffrey Feltman. Credit: State Department website