Interview with Volker Perthes
Iraqi Decision Makers under Pressure to Reach Consensus

President Obama intends to withdraw all US armed forces from Iraq by 2011 at the latest. According to political scientist Volker Perthes, this means that Iraq's various power elites are faced with the challenge of drafting shared, workable policies. Günther Birkenstock spoke to him

Soldiers in Iraq with the Iraqi flag (photo: AP)
Iraqi soldiers must assume more responsibility for their country in the future, says Middle East expert Volker Perthes

​​Is Barack Obama's schedule for Iraq realistic? Is the security situation in Iraq really that stable now?

Volker Perthes: The security situation in Iraq has certainly improved, and the question as to whether the schedule is realistic cannot, of course, be answered with a simple "yes" or "no". There are various political dynamics at play which will themselves be influenced by the planned withdrawal.

Barack Obama has said very clearly that the Iraqis must assume more responsibility for their own policies and their own future. When the Americans are no longer there to do everything for them, the Iraqis will be forced to reach consensus or, in the worst case, sink into civil war.

Apart from the Iraqis running their own police force, what needs to happen for this decision to be realistic?

Volker Perthes: The Iraqis need to look after the entire security sector. But more than that, they also need to engage with each other politically, which they have already started to do.

Until now, in the period following the US invasion and the establishment of a new political community in Iraq, there has been a tendency among Iraqi politicians to assume that if they could not agree with each other, the Americans would sort things out.

Barack Obama during his visit to Iraq (photo: AP)
The US president intends to shift the country's military focus to Afghanistan

​​This period is clearly now coming to an end, and that is the nub of Obama's message: we want to leave as soon as possible; you have to assume responsibility yourselves. This doesn't just mean taking responsibility for the police and the armed forces in order to suppress the opposition; responsibility also means finding political solutions to political problems, such as the debates about the constitution, the distribution of oil income within Iraq, and the federalism issue.

What will happen to all the private armies that are also stationed in Iraq, such as Blackwater?

Volker Perthes: That is also ultimately a political problem that the Iraqis will have to resolve themselves. Until now it has been easy for them just to say that the Americans, British and other foreigners brought these armies with them and that they, as Iraqis, cannot force them to leave the country.

When the Iraqis regain real sovereignty, the government will have to decide whether to keep these military groups in their country and choose not to make them submit to Iraqi jurisdiction, or say that anyone working in the security sector who doesn't belong to an army must apply for a weapons licence and be subject to Iraqi jurisdiction.

Obama is calling for an Iraqi government in which all ethnic and religious groups have a say, but are they even able or willing to work together?

Volker Perthes (photo: dpa)
Middle-East expert Volker Perthes: "The Iraqis have to engage with each other politically from now on"

​​Volker Perthes: The Iraqi government does in fact include representatives of all groups: Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and even a few Christians. But the important thing is that they look beyond ethnic categories.

There are many political differences and the greatest problem facing the Iraqis is to generate workable policies despite their differences. At the end of the year there will be parliamentary elections in Iraq; a few US soldiers will probably be kept in reserve to subdue any disturbances and outbreaks of violence that might occur.

Obama has actually brought Iran on board in order to stabilise Afghanistan. Should the Teheran leadership not now also be involved in finding a solution in Iraq?

Volker Perthes: Yes, that's right. Iran has a certain influence; the Bush administration already acknowledged that indirectly. "Iraq Neighbours Conferences" have been taking place for some time now. In addition to the Iraqi government, participants include all neighbouring states including Iran, as well as the USA and the G8 countries.

In this context, there was contact between the US and Iranian representatives in Iraq - even under Bush. They are, therefore, aware that there are particular problems that must be discussed, such as border traffic and smuggling.

Interview: Günther Birkenstock

© DW/ 2009

Volker Perthes is the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. A professor of political science, he lectures in Duisburg, Beirut, Munich and Berlin, and is frequently asked to comment on developments in the Middle East and the Arab world.

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