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Experts Describe Political Breakthroughs in Iraq and Lebanon As Very Significant

Iraq formed its first democratically elected post-war government last week – ending a three-month deadlock that appeared to hamper attempts to rein in the insurgency.

Speaking on VOA News Now’s Encounter, J. Scott Carpenter, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said the Bush administration was “tremendously heartened” by the appointment of members of the new Iraqi cabinet. But Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the recent developments as a “necessary but certainly not sufficient step” in moving Iraq towards a functioning democracy.

Mr. Alterman said he was concerned about the sectarian basis of what appears to be Iraq’s future, and he questioned the wisdom of apportioning jobs based primarily on ethnic identity. Thus far the government includes 17 Shi’ites, 8 Kurds, 6 Sunni Arabs, and 1 Christian. Secretary Carpenter does not share Mr. Alterman’s concerns but thinks the major hurdle for the new government will be drafting a constitution. After that goal is met, Secretary Carpenter said, he believes Iraqi political parties will not be as inclined to form along ethnic lines.

As for the impact the formation of the new government will have on defeating the insurgency, Jon Alterman said he thinks that, as the new Iraqi government proves itself more competent, the insurgency will lose support. But he also warned that historically nations have had to fight insurgencies not for months but for a decade or more. Scott Carpenter noted that the leadership of the Iraqi insurgency is very difficult to identify and it is important that Iraq’s neighbors – particularly Syria – control their borders and that basic services are restored.

In another significant Middle East development, the last of Syria’s troops left Lebanon – ending a 29-year military presence. Anger over the February 14th assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, blamed by many Lebanese on Syria, triggered large protests in Beirut that brought down the pro-Syrian government. Lebanon’s government last week won an overwhelming vote of confidence in parliament, clearing the way for parliamentary elections in late May.

Secretary Scott Carpenter welcomed the pullout of Syrian troops, but he noted that is “not the whole” of what Damascus needs to do – namely, to stay out of the new democratic Lebanon, which Washington hopes will soon be established, to cooperate in disarming Hezbollah, and to ensure that all Syrian military intelligence assets are removed. Jon Alterman described the Syrian pullout as very significant for both Syria and Lebanon. And that’s because Syria has benefited economically and politically from its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon. But he warned that Lebanon has a history of instability, and its sectarian tensions, where there are 17 different ethnic groups, are even worse than those in Iraq. As a result, he warned that Lebanon could become even more unstable than it was under Syrian control. He described this period as simultaneously a time of opportunity and of great peril in which the United States would need to encourage the parties with which it has influence to “act responsibly in the coming months.”

In contrast, Secretary Carpenter said he is “very confident” about the prospects for democracy in Lebanon and he thinks the Lebanese have learned some important lessons from their lengthy civil war about the hazards of ethnic division. He said the Bush administration believes that Hezbollah must renounce terrorism, lay down its arms, and participate as a “political” player in Lebanon. Hezbollah, considered a legitimate political party in Lebanon, is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. John Alterman said that, while disarming Hezbollah is highly desirable, he is not sure how that will be done and by whom. He noted that Hezbollah is extraordinarily well organized and strongly backed by the Shi’ite community, which is the largest single ethnic group in Lebanon. He also pointed out that there is not a “single non-sectarian Lebanese leader” in the country.

Secretary Carpenter said it is hard to assess what impact the Syrian pullout from Lebanon might have on the domestic policies of the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus. But what is clear is that the Syrian regime is weakening. Mr. Alterman said he thinks the pullout will have a dramatic effect on Syria’s body politic because Lebanon during the occupation represented about 20 percent of the Syrian GNP. He noted that Syria has historically depended for its survival on outside subsidies – from the former Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Iraq. According to Mr. Alterman, one of the unfortunate possibilities is that Damascus will decide to crack down to maintain power under far more difficult domestic circumstances.

Regarding the impact of political developments in Lebanon and Iraq on democratic reforms in the region, Secretary Carpenter said he thinks the international community will work hard to support both the Lebanese and the Iraqis in their pursuit of “successful democracies.” And he believes that the “winds of change” may ultimately influence political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain. But Jon Alterman said he is skeptical because Lebanon was reacting to a foreign occupation and Iraq’s democratic experiment was “clearly driven by an external invasion” and that is not how Arabs want to get to democracy. However, as governments in the region lose control over the flow of information and as people are able to communicate more easily, Mr. Alterman said, reform is possible, but it is likely to be a long-term process.

For full audio of the program Encounter click here.