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Nancy Youssef, chief pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers talks to Paul Jay about the Iraq withdrawal in preparation for March 20, the sixth year anniversary since the beginning of the war. “Nobody knows what kind of Iraq emerges out of the US withdrawal, and so what they [the Pentagon] is really buying is time,” says Youssef, referring to whether the Iraqi elite that will be in power when the US is supposed to leave will be loyal to the United States.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. We’re joined now by Nancy Youssef. She’s the Pentagon correspondent for the McClatchy newspaper chain. She spent the past four years covering the Iraq War, served as the Baghdad bureau chief. She’s just returned from Baghdad last August. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So you’re covering the Pentagon. Let’s go back a few months to the election campaign. John McCain articulated a position which clearly represented a section of the military leadership, a section of the defense-military establishment, and that was: “We don’t leave Iraq until we’ve won.” And it was very much against setting a timetable for withdrawal. And even though this timetable was kind of forced on President Bush as well, for that matter, by the Iraqis, a lot of resentment from the military leadership and McCain’s section of political leadership. Well, those people can’t be gone. So what is the battle going on in the Pentagon now vis-à-vis Obama’s plan to get out?

YOUSSEF: Right. Well, I think the ultimate question that they’re wrestling with is nobody knows what will happen when the United States leaves. Nobody knows. Nobody knows what factions will be successful or not. Nobody knows whether Maliki will remain loyal to the United States and US interests. And so the battle is really for time.

JAY: Because Maliki right now is playing one hand towards Iran, one hand towards the US, while there’s US troops on the ground in Iraq.

YOUSSEF: The United States, one could argue, is Maliki’s militia. He’s—why he remains in power. He has to be loyal to the United States. Will he protect US interests once those troops leave? Nobody knows. Not the Iraqis. Nobody knows what kind of Iraq emerges out of the US withdrawal. And so what they’re really buying is time, time to get a better sense—.

JAY: “They” being the Pentagon.

YOUSSEF: Yes, those who support sort of staying to the end, at this point. What they want is the time to figure out—at least get a better sense of where this could all end up. I think what’s frightening to them, especially to a military planner, that they have no sense of it. And at least if they in their mind—.

JAY: “No sense of it” meaning they have no sense of what faction of Iraqi elite’s going to be in power once US troops leave, and whether that faction will be pro-US or not.

YOUSSEF: And that’s just on the political side. From the military side, how those forces will fight when they don’t have Americans watching them, whether they’ll be loyal to their political faction over the interests of their country. Basic things. Whether they’ll go back to torturing and beating suspects. On the most rudimentary level, they don’t know, and nobody knows. Everybody has their own suspicions, particularly in Iraq, but nobody really knows. You know, even in Iraq there’s a disbelief that the United States is actually going to leave, even though there’s a Status of Forces Agreement there, because there are so many unknowns right now. And so that faction is fighting for the time to sort of at least get a better sense. And their argument is: if the argument withdraws slowly, then slowly they can get a sense of where things are and, arguably, save any sort of threat to the gains that they argue that they’ve made. And that’s really the battle that’s going on. It’s why there was such objection to a timetable. You know, General Petraeus, who was a former commander in Iraq and now the CENTCOM commander, US Central Command commander, he talked about how you couldn’t really put a point on when it’s over. The timetable puts a point on, and it’s quite arbitrary, one could argue, and it’s as much political as it is practical. And so what the military’s trying to do is work within those political confines, really. I mean, even the Iraqis wanted the Status of Forces Agreement in part for politics. They had a provincial election coming up, and they have a national election coming up at the end of the year, telling their voters that they can promise US withdrawal is political. So that’s the fight going within the Pentagon.

JAY: One thing that is known, even if there’s a lot of unknowns, is that Iraq is sitting on oceans of oil. And as the great sage Alan Greenspan said, “It clearly was all about oil.” So if it was all about oil, it’s still going to all be about oil. So, you know, this question of withdrawing and Pentagon and the Obama administration, can they actually—are they really planning on getting out, even if they’re going to hand power to a faction that will wind up being more allied with Iran than with the United States and sitting on oceans of oil?

YOUSSEF: Well, I don’t think anyone knows. I mean, what’s getting out? Can you still have influence without having troops? It’s not really clear. Can they really shape events without dictating the security situation of the very leadership that they’re working with? Perhaps. I mean, I think military planners look at it and say, sort of historians will look at it and say, “The United States is still in Germany, is still in Korea, and that’s 50 years. What is to say that the United States is going to leave?” So it feels like [inaudible] And I think what the United States, one of the things, and I think what your question’s getting at, is how much influence can it have without that US troop presence there? And I think it depends on the kind of power that emerges, the kind of relationship that the United States have, and the relationship that Iraq has with its neighboring countries. You know, the neighboring countries will always say to the United States, “You leave one day, but we are always here.” And so it’ll be the kind of leadership that emerges. I think that’s why you’ll hear General Odierno, the current commander in Iraq, talk about how important these national elections are. They’re important for Iraq, and they’re also important for the United States.

JAY: So, from covering the Pentagon, can you imagine, in the Pentagon mindset, an acceptance that, “Well, this isn’t our region. Iraq doesn’t belong to us. It may be that it may be more allied with its regional countries, particularly Iran, which is the major power there, and that’s just a fact of life that we’ll live with.”

YOUSSEF: You know, it’s a complicated question to answer, because in some cases it’s personal. So many people in the military have lost friends, have seen them die in Iraq; so many have done tours in Iraq. So there’s a personal sense that those deaths cannot be in vain, that it can’t be that the United States withdraws prematurely because of some arbitrary political date cut out, that there has to be some tangible success that came out of the sacrifices that they made, which is understandable. I mean, they’ve spent years there on the ground. So there’s that sort of part of it. I think, on a broader scale, I think what most people would say, sort of looking at it intellectually, is if Iraq is secure, if Iraq is better, if Iraqis have more choices and more freedoms and a more representative government than they could have had under Saddam, and if Iraq is in a position that is more allied with the US than it was before this started, then that’s a gain. And I don’t know if you want to call it victory, but that’s an acceptable outcome.

JAY: Is there any sense amongst Iraqis—and we’ve heard it articulated by some—but the United States owes Iraq more than just getting out in the sense of reparations. I mean, the idea that, you know, perhaps a million people have been killed, that we didn’t ask you to come here and kill a million people. The economy’s been destroyed; the infrastructure’s been destroyed. There hasn’t been that much reconstruction yet. Is there some sense that more is owed? And is that heard at all within the Pentagon? Or is that simply that’s a political problem, not a military one?

YOUSSEF: You know, it’s hard to answer is because I think in the Iraqi mindset the Americans are never going to leave, and so it’s hard for them to think about what’s owed to them after they do leave. There is this feeling that they will always be there. Is there a sense that they’re owed? Absolutely, in every sense of the word there’s a sense that they’re owed, and there isn’t this sort of euphoria about the freedoms that they have yet, because they don’t have security. But I think there are immediate issues, which is making sure that the security situation is sustainable, which isn’t yet. We hear that violence is down to 2003 levels. Okay, but there’s still violence, far more violence than under Saddam’s regime. There wasn’t a car-bomb threat; there wasn’t an assassination threat. Those threats are still there. So when you ask Iraqis, they think the most immediate issue is what the Americans owe them is security, is the security that they had before this all started.

JAY: And do Iraqis believe there’ll be more or less security if the Americans get out or not?

YOUSSEF: Right now they think more.

JAY: ‘Cause the polling seems to be get out.

YOUSSEF: Get out, and yet people understand that there will be chaos afterwards. But for some people that is unavoidable, that if the Americans are here for 5 years or for 20 years, it doesn’t matter, that it has to work itself organically, that in some ways this is an artificial setup. The military’s artificial because they’re not really—the Americans are always there guiding them. We haven’t seen them operate independently. Maliki isn’t completely in charge because he came in on the backs of the Americans and he’s under the protection of the Americans. Then it needs to sort of sort itself out organically. And I think what Iraqis resent is that their options are continue to live under an occupation or chaos, and that there isn’t a place in between. And I’m not sure that there is, because the in-between would be the Americans to solve political reconciliation, to continue to train the forces in a way that they can run on their own. And I’m not sure that that can be done, particularly given the political timetables of this country and now the Obama administration’s push for Afghanistan. And that’s really their frustration. They’re stuck between two negatives, in a way.

JAY: But poll after poll seems to show a majority of Iraqis say, “Well, we’ll sort it out.”

YOUSSEF: That’s right.

JAY: “Get out sooner than later.”

YOUSSEF: That’s right. But they can still want that but still say, “Really, after six years, our options are now—the best option for us is chaos for an unknown period, and we don’t even know the outcome.” But there is just such resentment, and understandably, about being occupied, in their minds, that they want that to end and the opportunity to fix it up, because I think, frankly, psychologically, they think it’ll be shorter and that it’s more organic and more sustainable in the end. And I think—.

JAY: There’s a referendum coming this summer on what the Iraqis call the Withdrawal Agreement and Americans are still calling the Status of Forces Agreement, which is a kind of an interesting thing. What’s expected to happen in that referendum?

YOUSSEF: Well, I frankly think it depends on how the American contractors behave between now and then. If there’s some incident in which the American contractors or soldiers somehow have another sort of Blackwater incident like what happened in September 2007, then that changes the dynamic. If things are going along smoothly, then I think they’ll adopt it as is. I mean, the American hope is that everything can just stay on course and there is no push for something more dramatic. But these next few months are critical. There can’t be any sort of violent reminder of the perils of occupation between now and then, and I think that will really decide it, and also if whether their forces—how their forces perform, how the Maliki government performs. There are a lot of sort of mitigating factors that will play in that decision. But we expect that it would be passed as is, and that come December or shortly after, ’cause it probably will be delayed, that there’ll be a national election and that the foundation, the building blocks will be there for a sustainable Iraq outside of the US presence.

JAY: But, as you said before, they don’t really believe the US is really getting out.

YOUSSEF: That’s the balance. And I think that’s why it’s going to be interesting. And, frankly, the United States has said it’s not getting out, right? We heard at the end of February the secretary say that there’ll be some kind of residual force there. The United States said they won’t be combat. You know, to an Iraqi, they’re all combat, I think. You know, if it’s a uniform and a guy with a gun—.

JAY: Re-branding it doesn’t change it for the Iraqis.

YOUSSEF: I mean, he may be ordered not to shoot and may not shoot. But if you’re an Iraqi in that car and seeing a foreign soldier driving down your street with a gun, I don’t think they make the distinction. So I think that’s going to be something the United States is going to have to reconcile. Now, the United States’ argument will be that our mission will change and you won’t see us out on the street as much. And we’ll have to wait and see. It depends on how the Iraqi forces perform. If they don’t do so well, if they get into altercations, if they’re violent, that they do things that sort of spark a new kind of fighting in a particular neighborhood or a new kind of sectarian battle, the United States presumably would have to intervene at some point.

JAY: Particularly if their guy, who they hope is their guy, Maliki, who they’re not even sure if he’s their guy, looks like he might be weakening.

YOUSSEF: Right. Because—.

JAY: Then that will become the problem.

YOUSSEF: Because the biggest threat to the United States vis-à-vis Iraq is instability. That’s what they’re trying to sustain, because the United States in Iraq has lived through instability. I mean, I lived through it myself, and it’s true chaos, and all sorts of factions emerge. It’s how Muqtada al-Sadr became Muqtada al-Sadr is in that chaos. That just leads to new problems. So that’s the goal is stability.

JAY: And stability with someone the Americans can trust in charge of that stability. They don’t want a stability outside of—.

YOUSSEF: Right, but how much can you measure that? You don’t know, in a way, until the United States—. This is the problem. United States won’t really know how much they can trust someone until they’re not there. I mean, how do they really know? If I’m Maliki—.

JAY: So the basic strategy of the Pentagon is slow things down and wait to find out, as they approach 2011, whether or not they really can get out or not.

YOUSSEF: Well, the military line, though, will be that “We’re going to honor the Status of Forces Agreement. We’re not trying to go outside of the rules of the Status of Forces Agreement. But we’re trying to work within that time-frame and somehow make sure that Iraq is in a place that it can take care of itself.

JAY: So the mood in the Pentagon is they’re getting out at 2011.

YOUSSEF: Right now, yeah. Sort of. I mean, it’s hard for me to answer, because, again, there’s talk of this residual force. Look, the mood is the bulk of the United States forces will be out by 2011. What will be there is what people are worried about, and—.

JAY: Does that mean closing all the bases?

YOUSSEF: I don’t know, because those bases could become Iraqi-run bases, and you could have military presence there. There could be one sort of US base. I haven’t [inaudible] specifics on how those can work other than it’s going to be more of a training mission. What the military was really trying to do was work within the confines of the Status of Forces Agreement and honor it, because that’s the agreement that is there now. Now, it’s subject to change, and it could change depending on the situation on the ground, but today their focus is coming up with a way to leave Iraq in a stable place, and honor the Status of Forces Agreement, and come up with a way that those residual forces are contributing to that, post-2011. That’s sort of the matrix that they’re working within.

JAY: Good. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Nancy Youssef is McClatchy Newspapers' chief Pentagon correspondent. She spent the past four years covering the Iraq war, most recently as Baghdad bureau chief. Her pieces focused on the everyday Iraqi experience, civilian causalities and how the US' military strategy was reshaping Iraq's social and political dynamics. While at the Free Press, she traveled throughout Jordan and Iraq for Knight Ridder, covering the Iraq war from the time leading up to it through the post-war period.