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Iraq watcher warns of further violence in cou -

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Iraq watcher warns of further violence in country's north

The World Today - Tuesday, 17 March , 2009 12:26:00

Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: A Lowy Institute specialist on Iraq says that even before the full withdrawal of US
forces, the country's government has gained substantial authority, and she predicts that Iraq will
no longer be subservient to any foreign power.

But she warns of an outbreak of violence in the country's Kurdish regions.

Lydia Khalil is a fellow at the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program. She is also an international
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was a policy advisor to the Coalition Provisional
Authority in Baghdad. She spoke to me a short time ago.

Lydia Khalil, you say that Iraq is a markedly different place now from two years ago. What is so
different?

LYDIA KHALIL: Well, I think one of the outstanding differences is the improvements in the security
situation, and also the improvements in the political situation.

To be sure, Iraq has many challenges that it's facing; I don't want to downplay any of those. But
the difference between 2006, when Iraq was on the cusp of a civil war, to now, where a recent poll
by BBC had stated that security concerns over security hadn't even made the top concerns is a
really significant, marked change.

ELEANOR HALL: What has caused this change?

LYDIA KHALIL: Well, I think it's been a confluence of three things. One of them is the military
surge strategy. The other thing was a unilateral ceasefire by Muqtada al-Sadr, and I think the
other thing was a war weariness on the part of the Iraqi people who brought back the country from
the cusp of civil conflict.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you talk about political change; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long been
derided by many inside and outside Iraq as a puppet of the United States. To what extent is this
the case?

LYDIA KHALIL: Well, that was certainly the view a couple of years ago. Not only a puppet of the
United States, but also a very weak leader without his own power base. When he first got into
power, there were numerous attempts by other political parties, particularly his Shia rivals, to
oust him in favour of their own candidate. But the surge and improvements in security have really
strengthened his position. No one would ever have though two years ago to call Maliki a 'strongman
leader'. Now that's what we're calling him. And he's emerged as the man to bring about security and
sovereignty to the new Iraq, and he's emerging as one of the most popular figures in the country
today.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, certainly the Status of Forces Agreement showed the extent of the shift in the
power balance between the Iraqi and the US governments, but was that more to do with the declining
popularity and influence of George W. Bush at the end of his term, than a sign of the Iraqi
governments and Prime Minister Maliki's authority?

LYDIA KHALIL: Again, I think it was a confluence of events. But we can't discount the rise in Iraq,
so to speak. They had a lot more confidence and were less willing to take direction from the United
States. The Iraqis drove a very, very tough bargain and there's things in there that the United
States government would never have agreed to. And I think that has more to do with the tough
negotiating position and confidence of the Iraqi Government, rather than unpopularity of the Bush
administration.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority. What do you think was the
intent of the Bush administration, in terms of its relationship with the new,
democratically-elected Iraqi Government? Was it wanting a client state?

LYDIA KHALIL: I think there were some within the administration perhaps who were envisioning Iraq
like that. But the people who are working in Iraq on behalf of the Coalition really did want to see
a stable country with which the United States and Coalition partners could have a stable
relationship. But those who had envisioned Iraq to be some sort of client state or base from which
the United States could project its interests, I think are now disappointed with the emergence of
Iraqi confidence and sovereignty. It's remarkable in a sense that just a year or two ago it was
under military occupation.

ELEANOR HALL: Is it inevitable that Iran's power and influence in Iraq will increase as US power
and influence declines?

LYDIA KHALIL: Well, that's certainly a concern for many US officials, but I don't think that that's
necessarily the case, because just as the United States has faced constraints in projecting its
interests through Iraq, so too does Iran. And Iraqis, they're not going to be willing to take
direction from any country, whether it's Iran or the United States.

ELEANOR HALL: The Kurds have managed to weather these crisis years in Iraq relatively well, but
you're warning that the Kurdish regions could be headed for violence again. Why?

LYDIA KHALIL: I think it really centres around Kirkuk, which is not formally within the
administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government, but it is an oil-rich, multi-ethnic city that
the Kurds do want to have within their formal administration. The Central Government and other
Iraqis do not want to see this happen, so it could be a potential flashpoint coming into the
future. It's particularly worrisome; we've seen suicide attacks occur in the country over the past
year, ethnic tensions and emotions are running very high, the stakes are very high. Not only could
this spark internal conflict within Iraq, but it also has a potential to invite regional
intervention.

If the Kurds do end up making power plays on Kirkuk, and somehow manage to get it under their own
administration, the Turks are going to be very unhappy with that, because they see the oil
resources in Kirkuk as a means for Iraqi Kurds to eventually declare independence.

ELEANOR HALL: Would the situation with the Kurds be more stable if US forces were remaining in Iraq
for longer?

LYDIA KHALIL: Not necessarily. I think that the US presence in the northern part of the country has
not been there for actually quite a number of years, but I think that the unwillingness of the
administration really to commit themselves and the potential for them to be distracted by other
conflicts, like in Afghanistan, and not to focus their attention on Iraq, could take their eye of
the ball of these emerging conflicts, like Kirkuk.

ELEANOR HALL: So, how worried are you that just as Iraq is gaining stability and autonomy, the
Kurdish situation could set it again on a violent path?

LYDIA KHALIL: Well, the Kurdish situation is one of those things that has been brewing for many
years, and we're only starting just to pay attention to it now because of the relative stability
across other fields. I have confidence that many of these things can be resolved politically, but
we always have to keep them in the back of our mind at the process for violence to flare up,
particularly in Kirkuk. At this point I do have confidence that they can be resolved politically;
again, if we take it gradually and slowly.

ELEANOR HALL: Lydia Khalil, thanks very much for speaking to us.

LYDIA KHALIL: Thanks very much.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Lydia Khalil, a fellow at the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program.