The Cable

U.S. Embassy Baghdad: Iraq elections most credible in Arab history

The U.S. government is coming around to the realization that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, or at least his political bloc, will come out on top and form the next Iraqi government.

It's true that the more secular "Iraqi" alliance led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won more seats in the parliamentary elections. But since Maliki's State of Law coalition formally joined with the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, administration and embassy officials are anticipating that Allawi will not be able to take a shot at forming a government, and the Maliki-Sadr alliance will come out on top.

"In Baghdad, they are calling Allawi the Iraqi Tzipi Livni," said one official source, referring to the Israeli Kadima Party leader, whose party won the most seats in Israel's 2009 elections but was then relegated to the opposition via a similar maneuver by right-wing parties.

Maliki might not ultimately stay on as prime minister because the Sadrists really dislike him, but he is the leading contender and has been at the center of the campaign to alter the outcome by mounting challenges to Allawi's candidates and calling for massive recounts.

Embassy officials in Baghdad have been heavily engaged with all the political leaders since the election ended and the wrangling for power began. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill and his team have been holding more than two dozen meetings per week with Iraqi leaders, pressing them to abide by agreed-upon political processes and move forward with the formation of the government before everyone gets too restless.

Although the elections are still in dispute and both sides are still playing games, the embassy is praising the elections and is prepared to endorse the result, no matter who comes out on top.

"These were the most successful and credible elections in the history of any Arab country. That's an amazing story," Gary Grappo, the top political official at the embassy, told The Cable.

If Maliki is confirmed as Iraq's next prime minister, the U.S. will have a partner it knows well and has been carefully handling throughout the process. While some believe Maliki's actions in recent weeks show he will use any means to stay in power, the embassy's view is that he is something of an opportunist and can be encouraged to curb questionable behavior.

"Like any politician, Maliki will use all legal and political tools at his disposal," a senior embassy official said, referring to Maliki's work with the Accountability and Justice Commission, the controversial de-Baathification commission controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami.

Both Hill and his military counterpart, Gen. Raymond Odierno, have said publicly that Chalabi and Lami are heavily influenced by Iran and the embassy has no illusions about their goal. "This is an organization of questionable legitimacy employing less than transparent means to challenge a legitimate election," the senior embassy official said.

He also confirmed reports that Hill will leave in July and be replaced by Ambassador to Turkey Jim Jeffrey. Stuart E. Jones, a deputy assistant secretary who handles Balkan affairs, will replace Baghdad No. 2 Robert Ford, who is still waiting out his stalled nomination process to become ambassador to Syria. Jones was previously the deputy chief of mission in Cairo.

Our sources also poured cold water on a report in the Guardian claiming that the U.S. military is planning to delay the withdrawal of some troops due to a recent uptick in violence in Iraq. Sure, the withdrawal plan is flexible, but the team is still committed to getting down to 50,000 troops on the ground by September, our sources report.

As for Odierno, who like Hill is also leaving in July, he too has been engaging with Iraqi political leaders, but not with the embassy staff. He holds his own meetings and then confers with the embassy later. There has been much written, including here, about the supposedly contentious relationship between Hill and Odierno. But as the military withdraws, whatever differences exist are growing less important because the embassy is clearly taking over.

For now, Odierno is staying involved because the military still feels deeply invested in the war it has now been fighting for more than seven years. "After the many mistakes made and huge cost paid, they got the strategy and its implementation right, and want to leave with their heads up. And they deserve that," the embassy official said.

The Cable

Fences mended, Washington and Kabul look for the path forward

As Hamid Karzai heads home to Afghanistan, his cabinet's week-long fence-mending trip to Washington is widely being hailed a success. Both sides succeeded in putting a happy face on relations between Washington and Kabul that have become increasingly antagonistic in recent months.

So what actually got accomplished? The Obama administration and Karzai's team say they made significant progress in planning the next two major events in Afghanistan's political evolution: the upcoming "peace jirga" and the Kabul conference that will follow it.

At issue in both meetings is the still-unresolved question of how best to deal with the Taliban as the beleaguered U.S.-led coalition searches for an exit strategy. Should Taliban fighters be granted amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms? And what about top leaders like Mullah Omar, who has shown little interest in negotiations? Can certain factions, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami, be peeled off and brought over to the government's side?

U.S. officials have cautiously endorsed Karzai's approach of assiduously courting Taliban foot soldiers and reintegrating them into Afghan society, while trying to figure out how best to move forward with engaging the senior Taliban leadership. In a talk Thursday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Afghan leader argued that most low-level Taliban fighters were driven into the arms of the enemy due to fear and intimidation compounded by years of mistakes by the international coalition. Most of them can be reintegrated, he said, but "reconciliation is more difficult and more of a future thing."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sitting next to Karzai, said that both sides had settled on a common set of conditions for reintegration. To be accepted back into society, Taliban members must renounce violence, adhere to the Afghan constitution, distance themselves from al Qaeda, and support the rights of women. "There is no military solution to this conflict," she emphasized.

That's where the peace jirga, which is scheduled for May 29, is supposed to come in. The meeting will bring together 1,400 people, 1,250 of whom will be Afghans from all over the country. Afghans living across the border in Pakistan will also be included, but the Taliban is not invited.

Karzai plans to use the meeting to try to build national unity, focusing on areas where everybody can work together, including tourism, narcotics and weapons control, distribution of services, and infrastructure development.

"It's not so much a negotiation with the Taliban so much as a discussion within friendly Afghans," said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign relations.

Whether Karzai will take a consultative approach in line with Afghan traditions or simply seek an endorsement of pre-existing plans remains unknown. "The classic Afghan jirga is a consensus-making process, but that's not going to happen with this size of a group," Biddle predicted.

As for the Taliban, Barmak Pazhwak, a senior program officer at USIP, said there are several issues where U.S. and Afghan sentiments are likely to diverge.

For example, will Karzai welcome back top leaders like Mullah Omar, whom he has previously extended an offer to rejoin the political process? Will Karzai seek an endorsement of U.S. forces' presence in Afghanistan, which could alienate potentially reconcilable Taliban commanders right off the bat?

Then there is the question of whether the Taliban even have an interest in reconciliation at all.

"What are the incentives? Why should the Taliban join the Karzai government?" Pazhwak said. "To the Taliban, the Karzai government is just a product of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. They don't think he has the authority to make decisions independent from the U.S., so they think, ‘Why bother dealing with him?'"

In late July, Clinton will lead the delegation to the Kabul conference, which is where the Afghan government will present what President Obama described as "concrete plans" to flesh out Karzai's commitments.

"That is an important conference, obviously," Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said, describing the agenda as similar to that of two previous international gatherings on Afghanistan. "It will be an affirmation of international support for the government."

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