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Surge? Working. Iraqis? Better Off. Next US President's Options? Open.

Surge? Working. Iraqis? Better Off. Next US President's Options? Open.

Lawrence E. Butler, the deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees U.S. policy in Iraq, offers an optimistic assessment of Iraq's prospects for a UCLA audience.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

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Duration: 01:07:23

Iran is an equal opportunity offender. There isn't a Shia group in Iraq that they don't fund, including the government.

While explaining the difficulties of constructing a federal system in Iraq, Lawrence E. Butler reminded his audience at UCLA that the United States once took a detour into civil war. That launched him into an aside about his early acquaintance with the subject "south of the Mason–Dixon Line":

My 7th-grade paper on the Civil War was "The War for Southern Independence." That got me an instant 'A' by the way. The teacher didn't even bother reading the rest of it because, politically, I'd nailed the subject. I'd drunk the right Kool-Aid.

In more than three decades in the Foreign Service, spent primarily in Europe, Butler has had the opportunity to develop a much deeper perspective on crises and civil conflicts. He worked on the Bosnian peace process and the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and helped to implement a truce following an ethnic Albanian uprising in Macedonia. He was called to Iraq in 2005 in the midst of low-intensity civil war; by then it was definitively known that the country had not possessed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion. As deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Butler oversees the creation and implementation of U.S. policy there. Last Monday, on April 28, 2008, he shared his perspective on Iraq with about 40 people at a campus event sponsored by the UCLA Center for Middle East Development and the International Institute.

It was a very optimistic assessment, with some caveats included.

"The situation has really changed out there," Butler concluded. "Wish I could go back in time, but we've learned a lot. We've got a lot to learn and a long way to go."

In line with the recent congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Baghdad, Butler attributed improvements in Iraq’s security situation to the "surge," the addition of some 20,000 regular U.S. troops in early 2007. He also credits a more self-reliant Iraqi army, which he said had prevailed against the Jaish al Mahdi loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and other rebel militias earlier in the month in the southern city of Basra.

“Today, the militias do not control Basra. The Iraqi army does. This is a phenomenal achievement,” Butler said. U.S. officials also acknowledge that a truce that Iran helped to broker was what eventually ended the fighting in Basra, which is strategically important because of its oil fields and port.

Butler rejected the idea that the struggle for Basra, launched on March 25 by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, amounted to political in-fighting among Shiite factions in advance of provincial elections set for October. Without insisting on the explanation for Maliki’s actions, he said that he had noted that Maliki “was reading the same reports that we were reading of women being executed in Basra by adherents to Jaish al Mahdi because they were not adhering to the strict Sharia dress." Butler said the reports could have been part “urban legend.”

He granted that all sides in the Basra fight had ties to Iran.

“Iran is an equal opportunity offender. There isn't a Shia group in Iraq that they don't fund, including the government,” he said.

Butler also had specific predictions to make. He expects the Iraqi parliament to pass a law governing the country’s oil and gas sector by the end of June, if not sooner. Under the explicit assumption that violence will abate and that the Iraqi army will celebrate “more Basra-like situations,” he sees the United States reducing its military presence to fit a redefined mission after a new U.S. president takes office.

For the next president, he offered a mostly hopeful message: “You're going to inherit a reality, but a reality with a lot of flexibility. Every door's going to be left open to you, and no door will be nailed shut.”

Butler said that the United States was not building permanent bases in Iraq, but also said that few U.S. military bases anywhere in the world would be categorized as “permanent.”

“I would anticipate that under the [status-of-forces] agreement that we're negotiating that the Iraqis would expect us to pay rent,” he said.

The State Department recently took possession of its new embassy in the fortified Green Zone. The embassy sits on 104 acres of land and is reportedly comparable to the Vatican in size.

As for democracy in Iraq, Butler sees some progress achieved and more ahead: “The Iraqis have a representative government, and they're working on the inclusive part of it.”

Responding to a question about Iraqi refugees, Butler assured the audience that the United States was working to help the most vulnerable people displaced by five years of conflict. He mentioned families without fathers.

More than 4.7 million Iraqis have left their homes, most of them since 2003, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. About two million are in neighboring states such as Syria and Jordan. Very few have been permitted to enter the United States. Last month, the UNHCR and Google unveiled an educational project that uses the Google Earth interactive mapping program to highlight the UN body’s efforts to assist refugees in Sudan, Chad, Iraq, and Colombia.

Center for Middle East Development