U.S. State official discusses upcoming challenges in Iraq

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Richard J. Schmierer. Photo by Nora Fleming / TMT

Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Richard J. Schmierer, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, in a discussion hosted Thursday by Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, talked about the upcoming challenges and key events in Iraq in the coming year as the United States’ involvement declines and President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

Schmierer said 2009 will be a landmark year for Iraq, testing how much progress the country has made and how well it can hold its own with declining U.S. involvement and test if “this is a new Iraq, an Iraq Richard J. Schmierer can support and believe in,” Schmierer said.

“For Iraq to move forward, they need to address other issues only a more stable country can address, and continue to take more and more responsibility in the future,” he added.

Under the new agreements signed by President Bush on U.S. presence in Iraq, the U.S. should move out of Iraq’s urban areas by June 2009 with a complete military withdrawal by 2011. Schmierer said U.S. involvement has shifted toward supporting Iraq’s sustainability and economic development, rather than on military support.

Upcoming challenges include Iraqi provincial elections that will deem if credible, fair elections can take place, and the efforts to bring displaced Iraqis back to their homes. Schmierer said there are still many unresolved boundary issues and roughly 2 million Iraqis are currently displaced in Syria and Jordan.

Iraq will also face some of the tough economic challenges much of the world is facing, particularly focused around trying to revive an oil economy in a weakened global market, after a decade of oil sanctions.

Schmierer said a more stable political structure should lend toward other countries seeing Iraq as an economic force again, even with decreased U.S. involvement. He said Iraqis are crafting new legislation to increase oil sales and utilize their supply of the third largest oil reserves in the world.

“There is a great potential for successful investment in Iraq. They need to push investment and the perception of stability and security,” Schmierer said. “The success of Iraq in its own right will be something that is helpful to us in the future.”

Additionally, issues with corruption of a relatively cash-based economy have been dealt with by implementing modern systems, such as electronic banking and computer based accounting systems that should provide Iraq’s government with more credibility.

“As we ourselves move into a new era, we are gratified at the progress of Iraq and the engagement of the international community and others,” said Schmierer, adding that while there were questions about what would happen with the U.S.-Iraq relationship when Obama takes office, it is the understanding of the State Department that Obama supports the security agreement and plans to continue the current U.S. policy into his term.

Schmierer started his career in the Foreign Service in 1980, and has served in Germany, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, in addition to U.S. Department of State headquarters in Washington, D.C., and on staff at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

He began work at the State Department in July last year, assuming the role of director of the Office of Iraq affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Less than a year later, he took on his current role, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.