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Tracking the Economy, Politics and Security in Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we turn now to a man who's been looking very closely at what's happening in Iraq as well. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he tracks economic and political data on Iraq. Good morning.

Dr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: I'd like to start with security and this clip from General Petraeus yesterday.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (US Army; Commander, Multi-National Force - Iraq): Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially. Al-Qaida, Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows. The capabilities of Iraqi security force elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis and local security.

MONTAGNE: Michael O'Hanlon, you've written that violence has gone down 75 percent in the last year. So what do you make of the recent fighting - what we have just heard from our reporter, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro - the fighting in Basra, the fighting in Baghdad and the violence?

Dr. O'HANLON: Well, it's obviously very troubling. But it was actually - two things I would say. One is, in terms of the actual significance of the violence levels in March in Iraq, it wasn't quite as dramatic as I had feared. In other words, at least according to U.S. data and Iraqi data, the number of civilian fatalities nationwide went up on modestly and is still way below where it had been a year ago.

So that 75 percent reduction is still more or less accurate, depending on which particular trend line you look at. It could be 65 percent, 70, 80 percent. So that's the good news. Although, obviously, still a violent place, it's much less violent than a year ago. The bad news is, of course, the broader politics of this. And you were just discussing al-Sadr. What will he do next, and what does this fight signify about what could be coming in terms of future fights? That's really the more worrisome thing, but the violence level remains fairly reduced compared to what it had been.

MONTAGNE: Well, because, when you speak about the politics of it, obviously, the reason for the surge, or at the core of the surge, was the argument that the politics in Iraq could be bettered if the security was better.

Dr. O'HANLON: Right. And to some extent, we're seeing a bit of that. We've seen - and Petraeus and Crocker talked about this as well - five or six key areas of politics where there have been some breakthroughs, or at least some first steps. Now the problem is, and they kept emphasizing this accurately, most of these steps are reversible. A number of them are not yet complete, and arguably, the hardest questions haven't yet been resolved, like the future status of the city of Kirkuk up north, how to share oil over time, how to help refugees return home, or maybe they shouldn't come home. Maybe that's going to be too inflammatory. And so the political system is definitely dynamic in Iraq. It certainly is not static and it has made some progress, but that progress is relatively modest compared to what needs to be done.

MONTAGNE: Now you've described yourself as a Democrat and a supporter of the surge. You've argued that the additional U.S. forces would allow Iraqis to make progress in other areas. Let's take, for example, the economy. Let's listen to a statement yesterday from U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who recalled his testimony before Congress last September.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): I reported to you that there had been some gains in Iraq's economy and in the country's efforts to build capacity to translate these gains into more effective governance and services. Iraqis have built on these gains over the past month, as is most evident in the revival of marketplaces across Iraq and the reopening of long-shuttered businesses.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Crocker. Now, Michael O'Hanlon, can you measure the impact on job growth and employment in Iraq?

Dr. O'HANLON: Well, I've been frustrated by that, in fact. Whereas on a politic side, we can quantify that there has been progress according to our metrics on five of the 11 or 12 key areas we would identify. On economics, the data is typically lousy. Now you do see ups and downs in electricity, and frankly, there's been a little bit of disappointment this winter after some good progress last fall. But on most areas of the economy, you really don't have good enough data even to know. And, in fact, I was struck - Senator Menendez yesterday was very hard on Petraeus and Crocker, talking about the poor economy.

I don't agree with his data, but frankly, Crocker had a hard time rebutting him because there is no real good data on the quality of health care nationwide, the number of kids in school, the quality of irrigation, sanitation, water systems. A lot of the information is anecdotal. You know, you have a ribbon cutting ceremony here or a new facility there. Well, we don't really know how well the country as a whole is doing in these areas. And unemployment, to get to your specific question, remains quite high. We still estimate it in the 30 to 40 percent range, and maybe even higher.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly then, it would be fair to say it's hard to measure, altogether.

Dr. O'HANLON: Very hard measure, and overall, frankly, not that super encouraging. I've actually been more encouraged by the politics lately than by Iraq's economy.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Dr. O'HANLON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he tracks security and economic data in Iraq. And you can hear highlights of Tuesday's testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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