Stakeholders debate Iraq’s future
From April 10-11, the "Iraq Futures 2007" conference took place in Washington, DC, and was organized with the TOBB-ETU University of Ankara. The conference brought together 22 participants from Iraq, as well as a number of Turks, other Europeans, officials from the State Department and the Pentagon, think tank representatives, and journalists.
The conference was opened by Barbara Stephenson, Deputy Senior Advisor and Coordinator to the Secretary of State for Iraq, who said that a large contingent in Washington believes that holding a referendum before the end of 2007 in Kirkuk might have to be re-examined. She said, "The U.S. does not have to bind itself to the end of 2007 as a date for the Kirkuk referendum and wants all parties to compromise on this issue."
The first panel, entitled "Political Process, Constitution, and Realities," started out with a presentation by Prof. Peter Sluglett from the University of Utah, who tried to place current ethnic and sectarian strife in its proper historical context. Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi intellectual, highlighted the shortcomings of the central government in Iraq, the sectarian partisanship among the governing coalition, and the endemic corruption among the members of the government. Ali al-Dabbagh, an advisor to and spokesperson for Prime Minister Maliki, explained what the Iraqi Government has accomplished so far. He painted a positive picture of the current situation in Iraq, but he acknowledged that there were a number of difficult challenges that lay ahead. Atiyyah stressed that such a compressed and rushed constitutional process - with 2 rounds of elections and a new constitution adopted within a year - is not likely to produce any stability. He emphasized the mistake to hasten such significant processes and noted that a major opportunity for creating national unity had been missed.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius gave a keynote speech that outlined Washington's thinking. He also recently wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled, "A New Threat in Iraq," addressing the emerging threats in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.
The second panel was entitled, "Kirkuk: A Strategic City for the Future of Iraq." Apart from the statements by Kurds and Turkmens that Kirkuk was a Kurdish/Turkmen city, respectively, the statements of the various members of the Kirkuk City Council. One by one, Shiite, Sunni, and Assyrian city council members not only demonstrated the diversity and ethnic milieu of this contested city, but also their desire not to be dominated by any ethnic or sectarian group. The panel reminded all of us that Kirkuk is a much more complicated affair than most of us are aware and still signifies an important Iraqi city where Iraq's ethnic/sectarian diversity can co-exist despite recent tensions and security problems. The Turkmens, Shiites, and Assyrians accused the Kurds of dominating the city's key governmental posts and trying to change the demographic makeup of the city by encouraging Kurds from other parts of Iraq to resettle in Kirkuk. Kurds downplayed the figures quoted by the others and noted that it was their historic right to incorporate the city into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Qubad Talabani, Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Talabani, was a strong and persuasive speaker who introduced and defended the Kurdish community's perspective on Kirkuk. Most speakers and participants expressed that the referendum - whatever the outcome - would not bring peace to the city. One solution that was put forward by a number of the panelists was the idea of internationalizing the problem and allowing Kirkuk to remain unaligned.
At dinner, Tony Blinken, Majority Staff Director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presented Joe Biden's plan for a federal Iraq and argued that the timetable of the current administration and the expectations of regional actors, as well as international community, may not coincide.
The next day, April 11, the third and final panel entitled, "Iraq's Future: A Regional Perspective,"brought together Amb. Celikkol, Turkey's Special Envoy for Iraq; Rashad Mandan, formed Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology; Jim Dobbins and Steve Larrabee from RAND; Laith Kubba, former Spokesperson for the Iraqi Prime Minister; and David Pollock from WINEP. Almost all of the panelists urged an internationalization of the "Iraq problem" and advocated for increased involvement by the countries of the region, especially Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Pollock was skeptical about prospect of Iran and Syria playing helpful roles and underlined that he was very pessimistic about the future of Iraq. An international conference, similar to the Madrid Conference that would involve regional countries, was thought by some participants to be a way out of the difficult situation in Iraq.