Ambassador Margaret Scobey has been on special assignment to Iraq for a year. In two weeks her mission is complete and she will return to Washington D.C. We did not record our conversation; thus, a transcript is not available. This is regrettable since there were endless valuable nuances in what the Ambassador said. However, I will do my best to summarize the high points of what we heard.
If you've been following our story, you know that Mohammed al-Dynee has been on a mission to stop the American Administration from supporting the Maliki government and allow it to stand or fall on its own merits. According to him, if America is going to support anything in Iraq, it should support the Parliament by providing enough security for all members to feel safe to come to work. This is the note with which we opened the conversation.
Ambassador Scobey reminded us that there were free elections in Iraq, where those who voted chose the members of Parliament, who in turn picked the government. Thus, according to her, the government is the legitimate voice of the Iraqi people.
The Ambassador acknowledged that the government was experiencing some problems, and attributed those to its newness and the inexperience that such newness brings. For instance, the Iraq Government is only one year old and many of those elected to Parliament had no previous political or diplomatic experience. She expressed great respect for those who stood for election, but noted that many are learning on the job and that part of the problem now for the Parliamentarians is that they are not used to the type of compromise government that they have. Right now there is a lot of zero sum thinking: for someone to get something someone else has to lose it. One thing they are learning is the art of persuading each other.
Mohammed raised the issue of safety, explaining that some members of Parliament live outside the country because they feel their opposition to the Maliki government makes them targets for violence. (Mohammed's house has been attacked; Saleh al Mutlaq's home was bombed, etc.)
The Ambassador said that she felt all Parliament members and government officials are at risk. And she re-emphasized her respect for those who have stepped up to be part of the process in the face of so much risk, calling them very courageous. But, she also noted that it is the right of each one to make their own decision about how much personal risk they are willing to take. They all face fear, she noted, but also said that it was difficult to work from outside the country. She told us how one Iraqi official explained the mood of the various Iraqis: "The Sunni fear the future; the Shia fear the past; and the Kurds fear both." She went on to remark how much progress this government is making by meeting, passing laws, etc.
Eventually the conversation turned to who might replace the current Prime Minister. She explained that in order to balance the three different interest groups of Iraq — the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds — it was decided that the Prime Minister would be a Shia since they held the most seats in Parliament. Thus, the President would be a Kurd since they held the next highest number of seats, and the Speaker of the Parliament would be a Sunni, because they had the third highest number. So, we have Maliki, a Shia; Talabani, a Kurd; and Mashadani, a Sunni. She also noted that the Prime Minister doesn't control the Cabinet; I assume the Parliament does.
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I pointed out to Ambassador Scobey that there are many Sunnis who argue that they were not counted correctly. She observed that there has never been a census in Iraq. (Note: With the upcoming Provincial elections the Sunnis will have another opportunity to participate. They had boycotted the first election while the Shia were ordered by the cleric al-Sistani to participate.)
The conversation turned back to what the Multinational Forces could do to provide more security for the members of Parliament. We talked about the need for enough secure housing within the Green Zone for all Parliamentarians. I asked about the al-Rashid Hotel where I stayed while in Baghdad, noting to the Ambassador that it appeared not to be fully operational. I wondered whether it could be renovated to provide that secure housing. She didn't know the status of the hotel, but suggested that Parliament set up a committee for Housing. (Note: the Iraq Government currently runs the hotel. A member of Parliament who asked not to be named said that the contractor who was awarded the job to reconstruct the hotel absconded with most of the money.)
There was a long conversation in Arabic between the Ambassador and Mohammed about security badges and security for Parliament members. Currently, access in the Green Zone is dictated by the color of one's security badge. Mohammed, as a member of Parliament has a green badge, but this color is not among those that provide relatively unfettered access. Mohammed tried to explain that the green badge slows down his movement through the Green Zone because it means that at checkpoints his car is completely searched for weapons and then dog-sniffed for bombs. She pointed out to Mohammed that a car placard was available to him that would allow his car to pass directly through the checkpoints. By the time we left Iraq, Mohammed had secured one of these car placards.
Temporary or Forever?
Conversation then moved to something I had heard from Sheik Hareth al-Dhari. Al-Dhari had said that if the Iraqis knew the Coalition Forces were not staying permanently, the prime fueling of the Resistance would be eliminated. I asked her why we didn't announce publicly our intention of not staying permanently, to, which she responded, "Don't they read the papers? It is very clear we aren't staying here permanently."
I pushed back a bit, trying to explain the perception I had heard: many Iraqis saw President Bush's refusal to accept a timeline in the supplemental funding bill as a clear signal we were staying indefinitely. I also noted the size of the new Embassy being built in the Green Zone, suggesting that some saw it as a sign we intended to stay.
The Ambassador explained that the reason for not announcing a withdrawal date was the belief that if we did, al-Qaeda would simply lie low until that date - waiting us out. She also pointed out that the United States has embassies in each country where it has diplomatic relations, reminding us that embassies are for the diplomatic corps not the military. Ambassador Scobey also pointed out that the Sunnis and the Shia quietly say one thing to the Coalition Force leadership about staying in Iraq and another thing to the Iraqi street.
We then started to look at some specifics and Mohammed brought up the issue of Iranians infiltrating the government. He told the Ambassador that 12 Parliament members are Iranian. The Ambassador was incredulous; frankly so am I. I asked her whether Iraq required their Parliament to be Iraqi citizens just as one has to be a citizen of the U.S. to be an elected official.
She said that indeed they did, but also reminded us that many Iraqis were in exile in Iran during the Saddam Regime and returned home after his demise, becoming involved in the political process. (Note: I raised this point in my subsequent meeting with Hassan al-Janbu, the member of Parliament I meet at Speaker Mashandani's house. Al-Janbu said the citizenship documentation of these alleged Iranians was forged.)
When I asked if the Iraq Constitution were set up to partition Iraq, the Ambassador said no, that the Constitution provided for a federal system where the Central state remains and has responsibility for national security oversight of the oil program, etc. She also noted Articles 142 and 138 in particular, explaining that Article 142 provides for a review of the Constitution and Article 138 the right to propose amendments to the Constitution, which would then go to a national referendum. She also said that provincial elections will be held to determine local officials and that members of Parliament will stand for re-election in 2009.
The Oil Law
Another portion of the conversation dealt with the oil law, also known as the Hydrocarbon Law. I explained that Issam Chalabi (not related to Amad) argued that the production sharing agreements were a rip-off of Iraqi Oil, designed to reward exploration companies for the risk they take if they do NOT find oil in places it is hoped to exist. The deal is that the oil company gets to own a negotiated percentage of the oil in the ground. In Iraq there are 83 proven oil fields. In many of these places, the oil is so close to ground level you could put a stick in the ground and find it. So why, he asked, do you need to reward these companies for risks they are not taking? The Iraqis who are upset about this process feel that these production-sharing agreements are a process set up to unnecessarily give away parts of Iraq's oil wealth.
Ambassador Scobey said Americans want to buy Iraqi oil, not steal it, explaining that the production-sharing agreements are the normal way countries engage oil companies to make the enormous investments required to exploit the country's oil resources. The agreements do not require that the oil company owns a share of the oil in the ground; these are details are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The agreements will turn on the amount of investment that has to be made for the risk associated with it. I explained that I had also heard that Iraq had enormous wealth in its proven reserves and could easily borrow the investment money it needs against their expected oil revenues which would mean that Iraq doesn't need the foreign companies' investment money and could hire their own contractors to exploit the oil.
The Ambassador said that yes, the country does have these reserves, but there isn't enough cash flow after all the government's other expenses to make the required investment in the infrastructure to optimize oil exploration. There are about $40 billion of revenues expected yearly. But after Iraq pays for its government and the various social programs, there is only about $10 billion left to invest in the oil industry infrastructure. This is a small fraction of what is needed to rebuild the oil infrastructure of the country, which is why Iraq needs the foreign oil companies to come in to make the enormous investment to get the oil.
We also briefly discussed bringing back the Iraqi Army leadership that had been dismissed under Bremer. The Ambassador said that there is a project in place to bring in some of the former soldiers and pensions in place for those who are not brought back.
During our meeting, as mortar attacks of the Green Zone continued in the background, there came a moment we had to vacate her office and move to a room without any windows. As we all stood there, the Ambassador, Mohammed, myself, and about five other people working in the office, the Ambassador explained that it is shards of glass imploding into an office that kills workers. The policy of getting away from any outside glass followed an incident when office workers went to the windows to watch for mortar attacks. One hit too close and blew in the window, killing them.
From this meeting with Ambassador Scobey, my sense is that there are significant sacrifices and risks made by people like her and those on her team as well as others throughout the Embassy. Ambassador Margaret Scobey gave a year of her life to live in Iraq to make her contribution to a better life for Iraqis. It also appeared that she she had an understanding of the risks involved for those Iraqis desiring to be part of the political process and her suggestions could prove quite helpful.
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