Operator: Welcome to the Atlantic Council Members and Press Call.  Please be aware that each  of your lines is now in a listen-only mode.  We will open the lines for questions following the speaker’s opening remarks.

Please remember to press “star” followed by the number “1” key on your telephone to ask a question.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. 

I will now turn the call over to the Atlantic Council, who will introduce the call and begin our discussion. 

Will Wechsler, please go ahead.

Will Wechsler: Hello everyone, thank you for taking the time to be on this call today.  My name is William Wechsler.  I’m here with Dr. Abbas Kadhim and Tom Warrick, to talk about the ongoing events in Iraq. 

Before it turn it over to Abbas and Tom, I want to give a couple introductory comments, then they’ll give a few comments from their own perspectives and then we’ll open it – the conversation for questions.

First and foremost, I think, we have to recognize that what we’ve seen recently in Iraq, the protests have been going on for some time now, that have culminated politically, at least, at this stage with the resignation of the prime minister, is best understood as the Iraqi people, particular Shia, but not only, really reacting to a quite a long period of time to find by corruption by poor services provision.  By an entrenched political elite, as they see as non responsive to their needs by the perception and reality of foreign interference, particularly in this case by Iran, but not only.

And a real revolution of the level of violence that the – both the government and militias have used in response to these protests, which are much larger than – much, much larger scale of violence than has been used in other protests, both in the region and around the world, with (perhaps) only (inaudible) really being what we’ve seen recently in Iran.

For the United States, the key question is the same one that has been for quite a long time is, how do we encourage an outcome that is both acceptable and reasonable, given the realities of the situation.  Different administrations have had a hard time getting that balance right.

The Trump Administration, which has sought an Iraq that was aligned with the United States against Iran.  Fundamentally, they’re having to understand that that is not a reasonable out come to be seeking. 

The Obama Administration wanted an Iraq that came to understand that it is not acceptable to have an Iraq that is – that allows itself to be a hotbed of terrorism that threatens the region, and indeed – and indeed the world, and eventually had to engage militarily to prevent that.  That that’s not an acceptable outcome for the United States.

And for the Iraqi people and the United States, it’s unacceptable for an Iraq to be aligned with Iran against the United States.  So, there has to be balance between what is acceptable and reasonable from all sides.

In the end of the day, what our policy should be is that with all of Iraq’s imperfections, we should be seeking an Iraq that’s independent, that’s sovereign, that’s united, that’s (got) fundamentally Democratic, that has (a monopoly) on the use of force inside its own borders.  That has a government that can provide services in (a nonsectarian fashion).  And is on good terms with both the United States and with Iran, that’s just the reality of where Iraq is going to need to be. 

And so with that as an outline and as a start, let me turn it over to Dr. Abbas Kadhim, who is the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative.

Abbas Kadhim: Thank you, Will.  And good morning, everyone.  Much has been written in the couple past few days.  So, I am going to just highlight a few things that probably were not made clear by some of the excellent writing that was taking place on Iraq. 

And this is an unprecedented time for Iraq in a very, very long, long period.  Certainly in the 2003 time and also if we go back (probably) to the 1958, eight of our (inaudible) (designs) voluntarily – were voluntarily even considering the fact that so much pressure was coming from the protestors on the streets, but it was not a coup, it was not a – any violent means.  It is (a still within the) tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.

So, it is unprecedented, and also because it is unprecedented, we will see so many scenarios that are going to be possible and I will explain why that is.  The – despite the heavy toll of causalities and the violence on the streets and since October 1st of this year, we have to look at the half full glass, and I think that even with that toll, we see that this a good sign on the fact that Iraq is moving on the same trajectory of democratization of, again, just the fact the people can go to the streets and then force a government to resign was unheard of in Iraq, certainly in my generation who lived in Iraq for decades, from the ’60s on.

The constitutional process is important, because that’s where the most confusion occurs.  The Iraqi constitution touches on the vacancy and the prime minister’s office in three different articles, interestingly none of them really clearly includes what happened.

So, there is Article 61, which talks about the withdrawal of confidence from the government and then the government by the Parliament that is, and then the government (will become a caretaker) government. 

And then Article 64, which talks about the scenario when the prime minister requests from the president to dissolve the Parliament and if that successfully occurs after a majority vote in the Parliament, does dissolve itself.  Then the prime minister will be considered as having resigned and the government turned into caretaker.

And then the third article, which is 81st article of the Iraqi constitution says, if the office of the prime minister becomes vacant for any reason, then the president will become, or will assume the duties of the prime minister.

None of these three articles was fully really materialized in this case.  And the writers of the constitution were silent on the fact that a prime minister could submit his resignation.  So, Iraqis agree on one scenario without having so many challenges, then that scenario would work, and most likely it’s the caretaker government. 

However, there are challenges, there might be a resort to the Supreme Court, the Iraqi Supreme Court, to decide which article applies and how to interpret these three articles.  And so now, we will – we will have to wait and see. 

That’s one constitutional consideration.  The other consideration is when we go to article 76 of the Iraqi constitution, that prescribes the way a prime minister candidate is nominated, it talks about the largest (bloc) in the Parliament. 

In October of 2018, when Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was appointed, the political powers did not agree on a larger (bloc) in the – in the Parliament, because they could not agree on a candidate for prime minister. 

So, they moved to a compromised candidate, Mr. Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was appointed by two (blocs) from the Parliament, without them merging together to make the largest (bloc).

And now we have to revisit the new nomination.  The question will be, do we need a new (bloc) to be the largest (bloc average or just properly), or will the largest (bloc) that (won) the elections is considered automatically the largest (bloc) in Parliament, and that would be settled on, which is close to Muqtada al-Sadr.  (Inaudible) (Iran) did not make the task easier by saying they gave up their right to nominate a prime minister for the coming period and they were willing to leave it to the Iraqi people to choose. 

The question is, who are the Iraqi people and how will the choose?  There is no (referendum ballots) possible within 15 days, there is no election, so again, we will have to revisit the question, will (inaudible) (Iran) have to fulfill its constitutional duties and nominate a new prime minister, or will the insist on giving (up the strike).  So, we will have to go to the next (bloc) in the numbers and that will be (Fatah) which is led by (Hadi al-Amiri), close to the Popular Mobilisation Units. 

These are all questions have to be answered within the very short period from now on.  And once that is clear, we will come to the question of who the people who are going to be possibly considered.  Of course, it is very vague right now, but we can talk about it in the course of this conference. 

And the conditions that have been pushed by the protestors and by the various powerful (blocs) in the Parliament seem to be very hard to obtain, because they want somebody who is not from the current political establishment.  Somebody who has no major role in the previous government.  Somebody who has no dual-citizenship.  So (blocs) would insist on the – some of the protesters ask for, which is, again, going to reduce the pool of qualified candidates to a critical short list. 

And then also somebody who has to be able to run Iraq for a very short period, just to put there for a – the large question that has to do with the kind of reform.  And the biggest question, of course, will be, will the protestors agree to whatever (outcome that) will take place and (someone) takes place in the Parliament, since all of the Parliamentary (blocs) are (projected) by the protestors to begin with.  They are the political elite that the current protestors are against. 

And the big elephant in the room, of course, will be the foreign influence, as I wrote previously, the government formation in Iraq is a (season) for many diplomats and (key figures) and many from the region are from beyond to converge on (Baghdad) and start (inaudible) pressing with all of their efforts to tip the balance into their own favors, or with the unilateral (inaudible) to be Iraq’s best interest. 

So, all of these are questions, and agenda ahead, of course, what kind of reform to expect, what is possible, what is desired, and all of that will be all questions on the table and we look forward to a discussion.  Thank you.

Will Wechsler: Great.  Thank you very much, Abbas.  Before we go to Tom Warrick, we go to another non-resident fellow that we have on the line, Tony Pfaff.  Tony, are you – are you available?

Tony Pfaff: I am here.  Can you hear me?

Will Wechsler: Great.  Perfect, Tony.

Tony Pfaff: OK, good.  Yes, no, I don’t know that I’m going to do a better job than Abbas just did, kind of setting up what the problem is, as well as talking about a way ahead.  I think I’ll focus my comments a little bit on the kinds of things the United States should think about doing in order to support Iraq as it goes through this, what could be a very powerful transformation. 

I think that’s the first distinction to kind of – a lot of this is – at the regional level, it is the rivalry between the United States and Iran, which I think serves as backdrop and context for this, but we’ve got to be careful about importing that kind of concerns into how we address the goings on – the developments in Iraq, particularly the protests.

But it is worth noting that there are two approaches, two relations Iraq.  And the Iranians have chosen one that exploits the kinds of things that keeps Iraq’s economy and politics stagnant. 

They exploit the Iraq’s divisions, the exploit the culture of corruption that (pervades) a lot of its government institutions in order to see to its interests at the expense of Iraq’s.  The problem with that – or for us is that individual Iraqis will sign up for that.  And take the resources that Iran gives them and (see to its interest). 

On our side, we’ve been much more interested in trying to build up the kinds of institutions Iraq needs in order to do the (kinds of things) that (inaudible) will breakup that culture corruption, bring on more functional government institutions and probably most importantly open up the economy to the kind of investments and (private sector) development that it needs if it’s really going to be a sustainable and – sustainable in a way that leads the kind of economic growth (and addresses) the protestors’ concerns.

So, in that view, I think it’s probably good news in the sense that (Mahdi) has resigned.  He – once you’ve – once your government is responsible for hundreds of protestor deaths, it’s very hard to come back from that.  And it’s very hard for western partners I think to be affective working with governments that have crossed that line.

But having said that, there’s good news and bad news because it’s just not clear what the way ahead’s going to be because the – because the kinds of reforms necessary to (see to) protestor demands are going to just – are going to get (inaudible) interest and generate more protests because everybody’s going to have to give up something in order to make the pie bigger and get the (light) reforms on track.

So, what can the United States do to support that?  Well, I think the United States should come out and support at least acknowledging the protestors’ demands and supporting them.  It also needs to shape it’s response in a way that doesn’t put Iraq against Iran or cause Iraq to have to align more with the United States against Iran.  But we need to do stuff.  We need to do something that will counter that kind of (malign) influence that the Iranians have been executing – have been implementing.  And you’ve got a moment here; the people are tired of it.

And I think to the extent we can find partners in Iraq – within the Iraqi government to empower ourselves not to serve our interest but to serve Iraq’s.  We can help them make some progress. 

And that means making certain kinds of support, the kind of support that Iraq really needs in terms of financial reform, economic investment and really what the vision here is as Iraq integrated into the international community as a positive and contributing member, that’s something the United States and its partners can do for Iraq that Iran can’t. 

And I think with that kind of orientation in mind, we have an opportunity to take advantage of this moment and get Iraq back on a positive trajectory.  And that’s what I got.

Will Wechsler: Excellent.  Thank you very much, Tony.  Very, very helpful.  Tom – and I should say to everyone on the line, I’m not going to go through everyone’s bios.  They’re all available on the Atlantic Council website.  Tom?

Tom Warrick: Thank you very much, Will.  I’m going to address three points today focusing on something that overlaps slightly both what Dr. Abbas and what Tony have said from a somewhat different perspective.  I’m going to focus first on lessons for the United States, second on lessons that Iran should draw and third on the need for constitutional reform as a part of the overall reaction of both Iraq and the international community to the protests that led to Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation several days ago.

First on lessons for the United States, the Trump administration and its supporters should not draw the conclusion from this that because the protectors are opposed to Iran which they are that it necessarily means that they’re in favor of the United States. 

In fact, it seems very clear from interviews and conversations that people have had with many of the protectors that they are seeking an independent course.  They’re seeking a government that is dominated by no other outside country.

And Iran as we’ll discuss in a moment has overplayed its hand.  So the fact that the protectors burned the Iranian consulate in Najaf, one of Iraq’s holiest cities on November 27.  The fact that on November 4, they scaled the walls of the Iranian consulate in Karbala, also a very holy city.  And the fact that last year they burned the Iranian consulate in Basra does not mean that these protestors would side with the United States against Iran in the two country’s rivalry for influence in the Middle East.

What the protestors seem very clearly to be aiming at is something that we should draw lessons from as the United States about the proper way to relate to the Iran – to the Iraqi people.  Many of the protestors previously had supported (Muqtada al-Sadr) who’s resistant against American influence during the occupation in 2003-2004.  His family is a symbol of resistance to Saddam Hussein.  And that good old regime, it is probably the underlying example of the nationalistic feelings of many of the protestors and indeed many of the Iraqi people.

The (light) lesson for U.S. policymakers should recognize that (arm twisting) Iraqis over Iraq’s ties to Iran while it might be President Trump’s first instinct is one that may lead to unproductive results in the end, most particularly as experts at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, other parts of the U.S. government know that forcing Iraq into as President Bush said in a different context, you’re either with us or against us could end up pushing Iraq more closely into Iran’s orbit which is certainly would be the detriment of U.S. national security interests.

Instead, the lesson that U.S. policymakers should draw is that persuasion, not muscle is what needs to be used to encourage Iraqis to move in the right direction.  The results will be slower and they’ll require support from the Congress and the American people.  But the results will be much more long lasting.

The United States needs to find ways for example to help Iraqi universities educate the emerging generation of Iraqis and how to build Democratic rule of law based societies.  We should be looking for opportunities to increase the number and scope of State Department international visitors programs, student visas for Iraqis interested in studying history, journalism, law, and similar programs.

And we should really look at trying – how to try to help the generation of Iraqi legal scholars that has come of age since Iraq’s constitution was passed in 2005 and find other ways to help reduce corruption and increase government transparency so that all Iraqis benefit from Iraq’s oil well.

But lessons for Iran are different.  Iran considers its policy towards Iraq apparently to be focused on ensuring that Iraq never poses a threat to the Iranian system of clerical government.  However, in order to achieve this, Iran has tried to inviolate some f the most problematic aspects of what it set up in Lebanon where it set up Iranian supported and dominated militias as the last being parallel power structure intended to be under Iran’s control outside of the Iraqi constitution.

So, in the earlier rounds of protests, Iran made a show of supporting the Abdul-Mahdi government but pushing only for cosmetic reforms and encouraging it’s supporters in the Iraqi government to crack down on the protestors.

The Iranian instinct in this situation would probably be to try to see a successor to Abdul-Mahdi who is in Iran’s pocket.  But there is no actual miracle worker that the Iranians have who can deliver on what the protestors want, basic services the economy, anti-corruption and most importantly for this, a reduction in Iranian influence.

This would lead Iran down the track of trying to either ensure control through a crack down on the protestors or increasing efforts to try to (suborn) the Iraqi political class and keep Iraq’s parliament backing leaders that are acceptable to (Tehran).  Either of these approaches would almost certainly blow up in Iran’s face.

Iran would be wiser in this situation to back off and to encourage Iraqis to find the way to meeting the protestors’ demands while respecting the Iraqi constitution, which is actually the course that the United States is currently following.

My third point is that as I wrote in October and many other shave also said, it is increasingly clear that Iraqis need to consider serious constitutional reforms.  The 2005 constitution was drafted by Iraqis with American and international help that to put it mildly could’ve been much better.

So the present system in Iraq gives a lot of power to the political parties that were recognized by the United States and Iran after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.  But it’s proven to be a recipe for both gridlock and an inability to legislate or govern affectively.  Serious reform of the current system which many Iraqis now recognize is not working for them; seems almost impossible under the current constitution.

The thing that concerns a great many of servers inside and outside Iraq is that a challenge to the principle of constitutional government would not be in anyone’s interest.  Not any interest if Iraqis, the west or even Iran.  The challenge for Iraq’s current leaders is to try to solve the immediate problem of finding a prime minister who is broadly acceptable to Iraqis.  But at the same time other Iraqis need to take up the challenge of constitutional reform if constitutional governance in Iraq is to be continued.

Will Wechsler: OK.  Thank you very much, (all three of you).  Let’s go to – let’s go for questions from the audience.  Please indicate that you have a question.  We’ll go to the first one.

Operator: At this time, I would like to remind everyone in order to ask a question, please press “star” then the number “1” on your telephone keypad.  Again that is “star” then the number “1” on your telephone keypad.  We’ll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

Our first question comes from the line of Stephen Keenan with Keenan Consulting.  Your line is open.

Stephen Keenan: Thank you (for the) very informative conversation.  I was involved with helping set up.  We have in Denver, Colorado the Denver Regional Council of Government.  We set up a sister city relationship with Baghdad in 2003.  (As a) group of military officials that were in Iraq and private citizens here in the United States and also with Dallas and (inaudible) and Phoenix, Arizona with Iraqi cities.

What – and I have say that for the first few years, there was a lot of activity, a lot of Iraqis coming to Denver, a lot of Americans going to Iraq.  And then the interest slowed up quite a bit.  There was bureaucratic stuff.

What my question is is the constitution is certainly – the Iraqi constitution is certainly complex.  Do you feel that this is something that America should be right now with a 15 day window of big decisions being made by the Iraqis?  Is this something that we should be putting attention on to try to make the constitution a little bit clearer as to where the (ascension) is with the current prime minister?

And what kind of – I like the idea that someone mentioned on the phone about visas for the Iraqi students.  Where are we at please with the amount of Iraqi students we’re allowing into the United States in 2019?  Thank you.

Abbas Kadhim: Interesting point.  On the (twin cities and) the activities, the bilateral non-military elected, non-terrorism related corporation is highly important.  The Iraq and the United States still have these strategic framework agreement that was signed in 2008 between the (inaudible) government and the President George W. Bush government administration.  And then it was mostly even though it had only one component that has to deal with the military and the terrorism or anti-terrorism activities evolved into nothing but that. 

And unfortunately so many other aspects of this agreement that could have bought the U.S.-Iraq relations a lot of political mileage, education, technology, economic cooperation, so many other issues that have to do with cultural and political corporation have been put on the back burner sometimes because of the fact that the security dossier has been the dominant one and sometimes because both the United States and the America – the Iraqi side did not really pay enough attention or sufficient – spent sufficient effort to activate the strategy framework agreement.

I think right now it’s not the time to revisit it until a new, permanent government is seated.  Right now, it’s very hard to talk about even questions such as constitutional reform on all of that.

I think for the next two months, we’ll be dealing with the immediate activities that need to take place in Iraq, namely the seating of a new government, which will be an interim government to implement the immediate demands of the protestors.  And then once that government (everybody’s involved in that with too has the idea) that it will not be a full-year government but it will be an interim government and all of the focus will be there.

I think the United States is well-advised given what Tom Warrick just ably outlined.  The United States should not really cast a heavy shadow on what goes on (around that) because we should be mindful always that the United States is not really going to do be helpful to any candidate who is going to be considered or any outcome of the process if it is seen that the United States is behind it. 

That doesn’t mean we – the United States should not do its best through diplomatic channels, through all other ways that are low key and discreet to secure the mutual interests of Iraq and the United States.  That’s my take.  Maybe others have something to add.

Tom Warrick: And then on the question of visas for Iraqis, as I think most people may remember, Iraq was initially covered by a presidential proclamation that restricted visas from a number of countries, but in the final version that was in Executive Order 13780, a presidential proclamation issued in September of 2017, Iraq was not listed.

Nevertheless, it is true that the number and nature of Iraqi visas is limited by the relatively few counselor officers that the U.S. State Department is able to station currently in Iraqi cities.  And so, it would take, as I indicated, a policy decision by the United States government to step up its ability to give proper review to the number of people from Iraq who would be coming here whether on international visitors programs or as a student studying constitutional law, journalism, history, or other subjects.

So it would take a policy decision to do that, but the dividends that it would pay off in the long run are considerable both to the United States and to Iraq.

Will Wechsler: OK, let’s go to the next questioner.

Operator: Our next question comes from the line of Joyce Karam with The National.  Your line is open.

Joyce Karam:  Yes, hi.  Good morning.  Thanks for doing this.  My question, maybe to Dr. Abbas, what role do you see the Gulf countries, the Arab countries doing to help Iraq form a new government?  Do you see any opportunity for restoring perhaps a more balanced Arab rule that we haven’t seen really since 2003? 

And to the others when you say it’s – that Iran is unlikely to accept a governed that’s essentially not pro-Iran, I mean, doesn’t that automatically mean that we are going to see a long period (of void) in Iran given their influence and political leverage (on the ground)?

Abbas Kadhim: Hi, Joyce.  Well, I think what we said about Iran and the United States should apply even more to the Gulf.  Gulf government should stay completely out of the process for the next few months.  There is no perception in Iraq that Gulf government can be helpful in any way, and that’s one.

Second, we also have to highlight that as protestors burnt the – not just Consulate of Iran or the Iranian Consulate (in measure twice actually) – Tom, they did it yesterday as well – so twice within a week or so, they – the protestors in (Nasiriya) who are the heaviest in their weight on the symbolism and substance of the current protest actually had chance that were frequent and constant against the Saudis and against the others.

So there was also a lot of talk among the Iraqi political elite on what subgroups that the UAW somehow had been involved and through its intelligence in fueling that, of course, whether these are conspiracy theories or there is something to it.  The question is perception is more important than reality in these hard times.

So I would counsel the Gulf States to stay out of it because they come against every (inaudible) with Iraq since 2003, maybe even before.  And they are also a foreign influence one way or another.  I think it should be left to the Iraqis to handle it, and I will leave the question on Iran to Tom because I think (inaudible) (what he said).

Tom Warrick: I’m sorry.  I was following Abbas’s thought.  What was your – Joyce, what was your question on Iran?

Joyce Karam:  I mean, basically it feels like we’re in a (zero sum) game because if Iran is not going to accept a government that’s not pro-Iran and then the (inaudible) through the protestors are looking for a more independent governed and then when you look at Iran influence and leverage on the ground, doesn’t that automatically mean we’re going through a long period (of void) in Iraq similar to what we’re seeing already?  And Lebanon, I mean, how do you balance these two interests?

Tom Warrick: Well obviously the bitter course is for Iran to recognize the lessons that are being taught by what is going on in Iraq right now that if it tries to exert its influence, it obviously has ways that it can do that, but the result could be something that would be very detrimental to Iran’s longer term and legitimate interests that Iraq not invade it ever again in the future.

The problem for the way the Iranians have played their cards in Iraq is the idea that by encouraging a crack down on the protestors as, indeed, Iran – the Iranian government is trying to do against protestors in its own country, that somehow this helps it achieve long-term security and stability.

All the signs are that this would lead to a very different kind of explosion.  And the thing I think that actually should concern American policymakers as well as Iranian policymakers as well as Iraqis is the idea that this would lead to some kind of process outside of the constitution to change the government in a way that would satisfy the demands of the protestors in the street and achieve a measure of independence from Iranian influence more than is now the case.

So by squeezing Iraq too hard, Iran may find that it’s – that the demands of the Iraqi people are something that simply cannot be met by repression in the streets and that this would lead to something that would sweep away democratic and constitutional institutions that were set up after such sacrifice in 2004.

Abbas Kadhim: May I add something to what I just said?  This is Abbas Kadhim again.  I would probably just to clarify on the question – Joyce’s question about the Gulf States, it must be highlighted that Iraq (inaudible) (would be – its Gulf) neighbors has been improving, and I think one best way to build on that improvement is that the Gulf States are not perceived (as a critical moment) as they are being very intrusive. 

And also it must be remembered that this (improvement operation) have – is – has been government-to-government more than it is circling down to the popular sentiment.  So the prudence right now in the process is to have these Gulf States keep low key (in this crisis).  That’s just wanted to add to what I said earlier.

Will Wechsler: OK, and Tony, you want to add a comment?

Tony Pfaff: Yes.  No, I was just going to pick up on the observation that we can make this a zero sum game, but it doesn’t need to be because, as what we were saying earlier, it’s not about ensuring that Iraq is wholly aligned with either Iran or the United States, but the key is ensuring, as Tom I think just said, that the United States doesn’t use its partnership with Iraq to set Iraq up as a security threat to Iran.

Having said that what we can do I think to support the protests and support the reforms is continue to expose malign Iranian influence, the kinds of things they’re using the militias for, the kinds of machinations they’re doing inside the Iraqi government to keep Iraq down.

If we can help expose that not just globally, that’ll make – that’ll give Iran a lot less room to maneuver and make them hopefully more likely to accept an Iraq that is not a threat to them, but that is much more interested in becoming an integrated and contributing member to a global society and not just an obedient neighbor.

Will Wechsler: OK, thank you very much.  Let’s go to the next question.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Meghan O’Sullivan with Harvard University.  Your line is open.

Meghan O’Sullivan:   Good morning, and thank all three of you for doing this briefing.  It’s really timely and really helpful.  I agree with much of what has been said, and I guess I have – I don’t know if it’s PTSD from being involved in government formation and constitutional reform – but I wondered if we could talk a little bit more about the details, particularly of the reforms that the interim government would be responsible for, and I think of the other two interim governments that Iraq has had. 

They had very clearly defined goals getting Iraq to an election and then getting Iraq to a constitution whereas my sense of what the reform agenda would be rooting out corruption are these type of things seen a lot more nebulous.  And so, I’m wondering if we can get a better sense of what would be the real specific goals of the interim government. 

And then if there’s time, you may have other questions you need to answer, but Tom, really interested in the – this idea about obviously changing the Constitution, which I agree could be greatly improved.  Is there any prospect of using the constitutional review provision in the Constitution to do this or like I guess do we have any sense of what the Kurds think about opening up the Constitution about what Sistani thinks about opening up a constitution?  Is this something that is going to be ultimately doable?

Abbas Kadhim: OK, I can start this.  It’s Abbas Kadhim again.  They – I will answer the first question from Meghan.  Hi, Meghan.  The…

Meghan O’Sullivan: Hi.

Abbas Kadhim: The immediate agenda really is what the protestors have put on the table, and their demands – even though they are leaderless, their demands started to be very vague.  It was a spontaneous uprising.  I was in Baghdad and Najaf when it happened in the first week of October and then renewed in 25th of October.  But their first demand as after the – some violence and the double killings and casualties was to overthrow the government.  This has been accomplished.

The second one is to have a new election law, and that was promised by President Salih in an early speech he made after the beginning of the process, and this remains to be the demand of the people, the demand of the (majority) and a couple of (speeches in Najaf).  The Shiah (highest religious authority) called for a new law for elections because the law – the current law for elections is considered to be completely unfair, completely skewed in favor of the large parties, and no hope for others to change the rules.

Then they, of course, speaking of elections there is a call to have a new (high) elections commission.  The current commission was also unacceptable for the (inaudible) and also for the (Najaf religious authority) and many in the parties would like to see a new one.  The – of course this has to be formed by (the department and sign) a new law, also.  They – (the next period) will have a new government, and as I said, it (is) not going to be a new election, I think a new election is not feasible right now because of the fact that we don’t have a law and we don’t have a new commission – it will take a lot. 

And the Prime Minister (as the) President has only 15 days to nominate a Prime Minister if they go and leave most likely scenario of interpreting the constitution.  So, I think what we will see here is an interim government, that will prepare for a new – those that (are formed) that I just mentioned, (the new electoral law) on the new election commission. 

A few other (also reforms) that are being mentioned and (here on there) – the good news is that the Parliament has not been dissolved and so we still have a continuity and the current Parliament can come up with a new law (and) a new elections commission.  Also the president will continue (in his) office. 

So there is a change of just the Prime Minister and the cabinet, and that will – everybody’s talking about the year, but it could be (going) for a maximum of three years (if) they decide to have a new Prime Minister and (continue) the term of Adil Abdul-Mahdi until the new election takes place. 

So that’s what the immediate agenda is and beyond it, we will be looking at basically what transpires between now and the next few weeks.  What other demands might be (done, where the ceiling of the demands) will be, (and what is accomplished and what is not accomplished). 

Will Wechsler: And so, turning to the views of some of the major players in the Iraqi political system, I think it’s certainly time to stop thinking of any one ethnic group or sectarian group as having a monolithic view, because I think one of the lessons out of this for everyone is that views are diverse and different people hold different opinions. 

Among a number of Kurdish politicians, they see both opportunities and dangers in constitutional reform, there are certain provisions in the 2005 constitution that haven’t been implemented that the Kurds, many of them would like to see implemented and at the same time, I think many of them would not want to see the – this current status of the Iraqi Kurdistan region as comprised (in any) important way. 

That said, the Kurds always have (the) ability under (almost any) anticipation of either blocking constitutional reform or deciding to go a different course.  As opposed to (Ayatollah Sistani), I think (the spokesman) was clear in the most recent (sermon) that was delivered in (his name) in (Najaf) that fundamental changes need to be made. 

And while (he obviously) doesn’t (opine on individual) constitutional (clauses), it seems rather clear that – that his view is aligned with that of many of the Iraqi people that very fundamental changes need to be made, and it’s hard to see how that can happen without some parts of the constitution (here). 

But I think many of the protestors are (keen of is that) the constitution includes more than just (its literal) provisions, it includes the current electoral system and the way in which Iraqis treat their leaders.  And so I think this is one those situations where scholars both inside and outside Iraq – to the extent people want to try to (think) helpfully (in) this matter, need to look at this not so much as individual clauses of a constitution that (should be) changed, but rather what are the problems that need to be solved?

And I think the protestors have given us a lot of very good and important ideas to think about, but the real challenge is going to be translating the desires and sentiments of the Iraqi people into a government that (will more completely satisfy) their needs and ambition.  OK.  (I think we have time for one more question).

Operator: We have time for one more question today.  Alexander Kravetz from Insight, please go ahead. 

Alexander Kravetz: Good afternoon everyone.  I apologize, I came in a little late, so maybe one of the questions I’m going to ask was covered, I missed the – Abbas’s (segment) but before – just very – two quick brief comments, I (was in Baghdad and Erbil) last week and I would emphasize on the last question –  I would emphasize concern and opportunity from the Kurdish politicians.  I would emphasize more the concern of the potential of having a (inaudible) reform process, opening up Pandora’s Box of sorts.

And on the over – and on the – on the protestors’ demand to overthrow the government, I would say that the Prime Minister resigning is really only a first step; I think that the key thing is going to be who’s going to replace them and how is that going to be received by the protestors. 

The two questions are – maybe to focus on (the Baghdad-Erbil) question.  One is, last week the agreement – well an agreement was announced that there Erbil and Bagdad had a agreed that they would – that Erbil would hand over 250,000 barrels to SOMO to sell but the financial, let’s say, aspects of (the agreements with the) budget and with the (ministry of finance) remain to be worked out and there was a delegation scheduled and I understand the – to go to Bagdad (precisely) to talk with the finance ministry.

And it’s my understanding that they actually did (slide) despite the resignation – (did slide) to (Bagdad) yesterday, (we were supposed to happen yesterday) and today, I wonder what – how – how you see the – the prime minister’s resignation affecting these stocks which (reportedly) have been progressing rather well. 

And the second question, Masrour Barzani, the PM – the (current GPM) was in (Ankara) visiting (Erdogan).  And it’s my understanding that there was concern on the Turkish side about Vice President Pence’s visit and a potential (inaudible) with the Kurds in Syria and I wonder if you have any read outs of that visit by Masrour to (Ankara)? 

Abbas Kadhim: Hi Alex, this is Abbas Kadhim. 

Alexander Kravetz: Hi (inaudible). 

Abbas Kadhim: Thank you.  Well, I will address one part of your question, the (Baghdad-Erbil) relation.  During the term of – short term of  Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government, there was a large window of hope that opened for (better) relations and that window kind of was destroyed by the (lack) of good faith action from (Erbil), to be honest. 

What happened was that Adil Abdul-Mahdi agreed to pay the salaries for all of the Kurdish Regional Governments employees and also pay their share of the budget provided that they would provide at least 250,000 barrels (a) day, which meant that if they exported more, they should hand that as well to SOMO according to the constitution of arrangements. 

The Kurds first – that was by the way the most generous thing any prime minister of – entertained offering to Erbil.  What (they first) did was first reinterpret that to say we only hand out 250,000 barrels and whatever we export more than that we keep it in our pockets.  And then even with that, they did not deliver a barrel until (today), so we are only one month away from the end of 2019, their agreement was supposed to be for 2019, according to the budget. 

That angered many people outside Kurdistan and the Iraqi parliament, and I was just speaking to a few of them recently and they said they would never vote for any agreement like this in the 2020, but just so there is whatever Nechirvan Barzani or whatever KRG had accomplished is not going to be replicated for 2020.

To make matters harder, of course, that was just before the departure of Adil Abdul-Mahdi.  Now with the departure of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, any person who will be taking his place will never negotiate something like this given the record of 2019 of what the Kurds did.  That is no basis for making such an agreement even if the Kurds promised to deliver this 250.  We don’t know if they will.  And it cannot be sold to the parliament as well.

So whatever Nechirvan Barzani accomplished in his visits to Baghdad recently, it is going to go (as) Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government, and they will have to go to the drawing board.  Most likely it will be a hard line position from Baghdad towards Kurdistan similar to that (inaudible).  And that will put us, again, in an unfortunate relationship between the two parties. 

Probably the best way to settle all of this is to pass a hydrocarbon law that has been lingering in parliament for a long time.  Then you don’t need to make (those side agreements) every time there is a budget or every time there is a government formation and neither side lives up to them.  Basically the break in of these deals have been happening in Baghdad and (Erbil, to be fair).

So I think the next time between (Kurd KRG) and next government is going to be a rough time to agree on many issues from (the start).  I will leave the rest of your questions (especially on the U.S.) to Tom if he has anything on Vice President Pence’s visit or any other issues.  Thank you.

Tom Warrick: Yes.  No, all I’ve seen on that is what’s been reported in the press.  It was following a successful meeting with Vice President Pence and U.S. troops based at an air base west of Baghdad.  And so, I think it was a question of touching base between key allies.  I don’t think there was anything particularly significant that was changed as a result of that meeting.  I don’t know if anyone else here has any different insight

Will Wechsler: I don’t think so.  Tony?

Male: My understanding – hello?

Will Wechsler: Hello?

Abbas Kadhim: (Inaudible).

Alexander Kravetz: Well, thank you both for answering.  The last one on Masrour’s visit to Ankara, my understanding is that – my understanding is that the U.S. actually flew in Commander (Kobani), the Syrian Kurdish Commander, in what was supposedly a kind of (confidential) slash secret visit but it was going to (inaudible), and this created – but it became public and it, well, created obviously some (concerns) on the Turkish side, so that’s why I was wondering if you had a readout on the visit from Masrour to Ankara (that just happened).

Tom Warrick: No.  No, we haven’t seen that.

Alexander Kravetz: OK.  All right, thank you very much.

Will Wechsler: Well let me at this point say thank you to everyone for taking the time.  I think we’ve (gotten) to the end of the time allocated for this, but really appreciate the time that you’ve taken to listen to our experts.  We stand ready to be helpful.  If anyone wants to ask us questions otherwise, please go in through the website and through our communications team.  Thank you very much.

Abbas Kadhim: Thank you, everyone, and yes.  We’ll be happy to talk about any questions that didn’t have a chance to be answered or any questions to come in the near future.  And thanks to everyone in the conference and those who have been asking good questions.  Appreciate it.

Operator: This concludes today’s conference call.  Thank you for your participation.  You may now disconnect.


Related Experts: Abbas Kadhim, William F. Wechsler, C. Anthony Pfaff, and Thomas S. Warrick