Today USIP hosted a public question and answer event featuring Rafe Al-Eissawi, the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. I was expecting more security to be around, but I think they were just very inconspicuous.
Dr. Al-Eissawi is a physician by training and was in charge of the general hospital in Fallujah for several years, including 2004, when the US laid siege to the city. After that, he has worked on the Iraqi government's health services before he became Deputy Prime Minister.
Before the questions began, Dr. Al-Eissawi said that the US had been focuses overwhelmingly on security issues in Iraq up until this point. In the future, with the troop withdrawal scheduled for 2011, Al-Eissawi stressed that he did not hope for a US withdrawal at all, but for US engagement in Iraq, but in different sectors. This new kind of engagement would help to strengthen US-Iraqi relations going forward.
Regarding the upcoming referendum on the security agreement, Al-Eissawi and his government hope it will pass because they believe it represents a good plan for the troop withdrawal. Because this is an election year in Iraq, however, the political situation may make promoting the referendum difficult.
As the questions progressed, Dr. Al-Eissawi repeatedly emphasized the importance of national consensus. After the highly centralized and repressive regime under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people are ready for a new kind of government, striving for national unity and cooperation, especially between Arabs and Kurds and in disputed territories.
In terms of Iraq's foreign policy, Dr. Al-Eissawi emphasized the widespread need to normalize relations with countries in the region, specifically Kuwait and Iran. Iraq is no longer a threatening nation, Al-Eissawi said, and other nations in the region may need time to adjust to that change. Regarding Iran, the Deputy PM stated there should be less focus on Iran's negative influence in Iraq, not only because the Iraq desires normalized relations with its large neighbor, but also because the Iranian influence is prevalent because it is filling a vacuum. He implied that if the US were to shift its focus from the security sector, that vacuum might be filled. When asked about Iraq's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al-Eissawi would only say that Iraq is a member of the Arab League, and thus its position is in line with the Arab League's official position.
Al-Eissawi was very frank about the work the Iraqi government still has to do when it comes to women's affairs and refugee/IDP affairs. He also stated that although Iraqi security forces will be able to deal with internal threats from insurgents by the time US troops withdraw in 2011, the Iraqi military will not be ready to deal with external threats until at least 2012. That being said, he did not offer any plans to address the problems.
After the questions ended, The Deputy PM rushed off to his next appointment. I'm really glad I got to hear him speak and I'm looking forward to the panel on sexual violence tomorrow.