December 2005

Iraq’s election: Is it a turning point?

Is the U.S. willing to let the Iraqis take over?

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

Fellow seekers of wisdom and truth

According to the AP story that ran in today’s Strib, the U.S. military has postponed the handover of responsibility for securing some Baghdad’s most sensitive sites because it isn’t sure of which officer the Iraqi government will put in charge. The Iraqi Defense Ministry has not approved the appointment of Col. Muhammed Wasif Taha, whose brigade the U.S. thought was was set to take over. Capt John Agnello of the U.S. Third Infantry Division calls it “a bit of a showdown.�?

The story implies that the U.S. military had confidence in Taha’s ability and likes the fact that Taha is a Sunni, which might help soothe the impression that that the Iraqi military is too Shiite dominated. Both of those might be reasonable considerations if the U.S. was in charge of assigning Iraqi officers.

But if we (and, more importantly, the Iraqis and others in the region) are to believe that the U.S. is seriously committed to letting the Iraqis run their own affairs, and especially anxious for the Iraqis to assume more responsibility for security, why are U.S. officers trying to control the choice of Iraqi officers for particular assignments?

Sunday, December 25th, 2005
Larry Diamond

New interview: Larry Diamond

“It’s troubling to think that the U.S. intervention in Iraq could lead to the rise of a Shiite theocracy, led by parties spawned in Iran, some of them virulently anti-American, representing views that violate basic principles of human rights. How are we going to square that with the loss of over 2,000 U.S. troops?” More…

Eric Black: The year ahead in Iraq?

The tale of the Sunni nightmare, and the (possible) big do-over on the Iraqi Constitution.

More interviews


Is Iraq a nation?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

The post-election analysis of Larry Diamond is available here.

Diamond is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which might lead you to expect a pro-Bush, pro-war analysis. On the other hand, his 2005 book is titled “Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.�? He seems to be calling them as he sees them, and the early results from the election left him very pessimistic because of the evidence that the vast majority of Iraqi are voting on a strictly ethno-sectarian basis, which leaves him wondering whether Iraq has much of a future as a unified nation-state.

The territory of Mesopotamia is loaded with significant human history. But the nation of Iraq, as currently constituted, was created by the Brits after World War I, stitching together three Ottoman provinces with distinct populations (Kurdish, Sunni, Shia).

There’s a lot of talk about a pan-Iraqi identity that supposedly developed during the 20th century, but I wonder. The Kurds have wanted their own country for about a thousand years and have been mistreated by the big groups – the Arabs, the Turks and the Persians – that surround them, outnumber them, and divide them. The Shiite and the Sunni Arabs have fought before, (the first battles were on territory in present-day Iraq, 13 centuries ago) and the Shiites have some pretty good grudges over how they’ve been treated in Sunni-dominated Iraq much more recently.

The U.S. has tried to rule out the idea of allowing the country to break up. Turkey worries about any talk of an independent Kurdistan that would border on its own Kurdish provinces. Diamond said (this didn’t make it into the excerpts at right) that the Iraqi Kurds have made a practical decision not to seek full independence (although that’s been their dream).

There not much history behind the idea of an independent Shiastan in southern Iraq, but it would be a rich country and the winners of last week’s election are very drawn to the idea of a semi-autonomous region there.

So the question I’d like to throw open is this:

Is Iraq a nation, or would it remain one if the rest of the world let the Iraqis decide that question for themselves?

An optimist and a pessimist

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Fellow seekers.

Vin Weber and Michael Barnett checked back in with post-election reactions. For those of you joining us late, Weber is the former Republican congressman from Minnesota, currently chairman of the board of the National Endowment of Democracy. His pre-election interview is here. Barnett is a professor of International Relations at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. (Barnett’s pre-election interview.)

Weber’s latest thinking:

“Most of the news about the election is very good, although there clearly are major challenges ahead. The good news is , of course, the overall participation and particularly the Sunni Arab turnout. We had hoped that the Sunnis were near a “tipping point” and the election looks as if they’ve “tipped” into the political process.

The Shiite vote indicates that Islamist parties seem to be consolidating their hold in that community, with the secularist Shiites falling short of expectations.

Now the hard work begins. The constitution requires a 2/3 majority before a government can be formed so the Shiites will have to compromise with Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and secularists in order to form a government. That’s sort of the essence of politics.

We shouldn’t be discouraged by allegations of fraud, or by setbacks that occur over the next weeks. On balance, the election was free, fair and honest and we have the opportunity now to watch the emergence of the first Democracy in the Islamic Arab world.”

And here’s Barnett:

“Although heartening to see the massive turnout of Iraqis, it is highly doubtful that the elections are a turning point. The act of voting itself does not begin to address or solve the big questions that lie ahead.

There will continue to exist enduring splits between the three principal constituencies. There will continue to be important differences of opinion regarding the role of Islam in public and private life (and even if there is a distinction between the public and the private). There remain important unresolved or to be renegotiated issues concerning the
constitution.

Various local authorities rushed into the post-occupation political vacuum, grabbed political power, and are unlikely to give it up without a fight. There is little evidence, finally, that the political process or emerging constitutional arrangement is going to create a central government that has the capacity to govern effectively. At the end of the
day, the real elements of power very much reside at the local levels. In this political atmosphere where there is so little trust and there is no effective authority to guarantee physical security, it is very difficult to imagine that the parties will find the ability to create the sort of political arrangements required for political stability.

These are the fundamentals of Iraq, and the recent election does not necessarily establish a process that can help to address them. Although it is quite possible that the elections are the moment when the Iraqis decided to use ballots and not bullets to settle their differences, it is equally possible that we will soon remember these elections as a moment when the parties momentarily decided to treat politics as war by another means.”

Yikes! What if the elections set off a new round of violence?

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

The coalitions, especially the Sunni Arab tickets, that got clobbered according to the early returns, are complaining of fraud. Some are demanding a redo of the election in Baghdad Province. Some of the rhetoric suggests they might take it to the streets.

For example, Tariq al-Hashimi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party (Sunni religious), said at a press conference “we ask our supporters to remain calm now but if our demands are not met we will have to make a different decision.” (I’m importing this quote from an account on Iraq the model.)

Al Jazeera quotes Abdul Husain Hindawi, the head of the electoral commission, saying on Tuesday: “So far there are no objective grounds to order a rerun in any province.”And: “If they have proof of fraud, then they should send a letter to the commission and we will reply to them. But I’m sure that they will also be dissatisfied with our reply.”

Based on the partial returns, it seems possible that the UIA could get well over 40 percent of the vote and the seats. They wouldn’t need many coalition partners to form a majority and would be in a strong position in any such negotiations. (Bear in mind that 45 of the 275 seats will be awarded based on a complicated formula designed to help small parties, and parties whose strength in the national vote is under-reflected in the nationwide totals.)

One possibly important detail: A majority can form, approve and sustain a governing coalition, but under the Iraqi Constitution it takes a two-thirds vote at the front-end to elect the council of presidents, who then nominate a potential prime minister and ask him to try to form a cabinet that will receive majority support. In some of his recent remarks, President Bush has alluded to this two-thirds requirement, suggesting it makes compromise among all major groups necessary. But what if they don’t compromise.

As best I can discern, the Constitution doesn’t address the question of what happens if that two-thirds becomes impossible, or rather: what happens if a one-third-plus faction decides they’ll never get what they want out of any government that can be formed out of these election results and decides to block things at the first step?

Four fresh takes on the election?

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

Good morning, fellow seekers of wisdom and truth.

I kicked off this exercise by interviewing seven analysts of diverse viewpoints and areas of expertise about the question of the elections before they occurred. (They’re available under “interviews” above, if you’re joining us late.) Thursday and Friday I connected with four of them (still trying on the others) to ask for their post-election-day updates. I suggest we freshen up the discussion by circling back to the original question about the chances that the election represent a potential turning point. Here are the updates:

Juan Cole update

Juan Cole (original interview here) continues to reject the idea that anything related to the election can do any good at ending the insurgency or helping the U.S. project. On his blog, Informed Comment, he wrote:

“I cannot imagine why anyone thinks that [these elections are a milestone on the way to withdrawing US troops from Iraq.] The Iraqi “government” is a failed state. Virtually no order it gives has any likelihood of being implemented. It has no army to speak of and cannot control the country. Its parliamentarians are attacked and sometimes killed with impunity. Its oil pipelines are routinely bombed, depriving it of desperately needed income. It faces a powerful guerrilla movement that is wholly uninterested in the results of elections and just wants to overthrow the new order. Elections are unlikely to change any of this.”

I asked him, if the elections are so insignificant, how he explained the turnout. He replied:

“The reason that the elections are not a turning point is that electoral contests can and often do co-exist with guerrilla conflicts. Northern Ireland had a number of elections during the troubles there. Sinn Fein and the IRA were two heads of the same coin, one political and the other paramilitary.

So the high turnout in, say, Salahuddin, shows that Sunni Arabs now want to create the equivalent of Sinn Fein, a political wing of their resistance. It doesn’t mean they want to end the resistance. They will go on blowing things up even as they agitate through their parliamentarians. Their goals are still to a) get the Americans out of Iraq and b) take back over the country (they think they are a majority).��?

Robert Packer update:

Packer (original here), the University of Michigan political scientist, continues to analyze mostly with reference to domestic U.S. politics. He made these comments (and I write this post) before President Bush’s Sunday night speech.

“YES, this election is a turning point, in that it marks a putative success of the Iraq
strategy and it allows the Administration to begin a phased withdrawal – which I expect to be announced by the State of Union.

Bush had been losing public support for the war because (1) the most publicly-stated
rationale for the war – WMD – were not found, thus casting doubt on the wisdom of the war, and (2) the continuation of violence after the initial ouster of Saddam, which cast doubt on the winnability of the war.

The subsequent arguments for war — fight terror and promote democracy — until the past two weeks, were weakly articulated and proved inadequate to sustain support. Then John Murtha seized upon the perception of unwinnability. These two variables — a rationale worth fighting for and the probability of success – are important in determining the steepness of the slide in public support for the war, as casualties mount.

A high Iraqi election turnout vindicates, in the short-run, the Administration argument that the US is fighting to promote democracy. But just as the January provisional government elections led to a strengthening of public support, only for it to erode in the months that followed, so might this be a temporary respite for the Administration — thus the need to seize upon this moment to announce a build-down in forces.

Furthermore, I view the President’s speech somewhat differently from you. I do not find the rhetoric of staying surprising, given that reputational interests in Iraq may now be greater than intrinsic interests. But embedded in his Philadelphia speech was a new sophistication missing in earlier pronouncements. By defining the adversary as only partially “terrorists from the outside,��? and mostly as disaffected Sunnis, the President is setting up the possibility that American forces will be limited to fighting the foreign jihadists.

This will leave the continuing Shia-Sunni struggle to the new Iraqi government. You do not need such a large US force when the enemy becomes only one-tenth its present size. Bush is saying that our fight is with the terrorists (in line with the new rationale), and not with the Sunnis (which will allow for a major build-down).

Abbas Mehdi update
Professor Abbas Mehdi (pre-election thoughts here) has been talking to his friends and family in Iraq, and following Arabic television.

Surprisingly, he has gained confidence that the votes will be accurately counted — he believes serious safeguards are in place against tampering — but doesn’t believe the final announced results will reflect the accurate count.

That’s because the final announced vote totals, and the awarding of seats in the Parliament, will be the result of a complex backroom negotiation, brokered by the U.S., among all the major players. The actual vote totals will be part of the negotiation, but also the need to give all parties enough to keep them on board with the process. Mehdi was very struck by an interview with U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad, in one of the Arabic newspapers, in which he said “the next big task is to construct a balanced Parliament.��?

“It’s really not a democracy as Americans understand it,��? Mehdi said.

Gotta agree with that. But Mehdi, who had been quite a pessimist going into the elections, and was alarmed on Thursday about possible big trouble over allegations of vote fraud, was greatly encouraged on Friday after talking to his Iraqi contacts, some of whom he said are involved in the negotiations.

He’s encouraged mostly because there’s a chance the Americans can get the vote totals to work out so that Iyad Allawi can be prime minister. Mehdi views Allawi as highly imperfect, but the best available choice, mostly because he represents secularism, a pan-Iraqi nationalist agenda, and a good relationship with the U.S. going forward.

“When you hear the final official results, there will be big surprises,��? Mehdi predicted.

Michael Rubin update

Michael Rubin (earlier here) of the American Enterprise Institute was willing to update his predictions on the outcome, and on the possible shape of a new governing coalition:

“We’re in for a rumble-tumble period of coalition building and fracturing. I’d say the United Iraqi Alliance [the Shiite religious grouping] will lose some support compared with January. It might end up with 40 percent. The Kurds, too, will lose a few percentage points, perhaps getting 20 percent or so. Allawi will be up from his poor showing in January to perhaps 20 percent. Chalabi may get 5 percent. The remainder, including some Sunni slates, will divvy up the remaining 15 percent. (For background on the main slates, who they are and what they stand for, link here.)

While folks in the West may want Allawi back, because he is a secularist, he’s anathema to the Shiite list. The Kurds and Allawi can’t form a realistic coalition without the UIA.

There’s a chance the Kurds and the UIA will form an alliance. But, in this case, the Kurds would probably insist on a weaker, more palatable Shiite prime minister, like Adel Mehdi. A Sadrist or Hakim would be too much for them to take, and Jaafari is seen as too ineffective by everyone.

If that deal can’t be struck, then Chalabi can emerge as a compromise. Because he doesn’t have a militia, he’s less threatening to the others. And, he’s respected as a dealmaker. Talabani will likely remain president.

The Sunnis will likely demand the Interior Ministry after the recent [prisoner abuse] scandals. Who gets that position could become the deal breaker in any coalition.��?

Rubin is heading to Baghdad later this month to watch the process unfold. By the way, back at Informed Comment Juan Cole explicitly challenged Rubin’s predictions of 20 percent for Allawi and five percent for Chalabi.

If I get updates from any of our other analysts, I’ll post them. And if anyone has topics or questions that would be useful to pursue this week, please suggest them.

Does the United States really want democracy in Iraq?

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Good morning, fellow seekers of wisdom and truth. The question in the headline has a double meaning.

There’s a narrow, practical question of whether elections in Iraq will produce a relatively secular, U.S.-friendly new government, with major roles for the Kurds and Iyad Allawi, or whether it might produce a government dominated by the Shiite religious ticket, which includes followers of the militant anti-American rabble rouser Moqtada al-Sadr, and two big parties led by the Iranian-influenced Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Ibrahim Jaafari, the current prime minister.

If one of the major remaining justifications for the war is the potential of turning Iraq into a model Arab democracy, and given the possibility that democratic Iraq might be led by pro-Iranian Islamists, can democratization help make the war worth it for Americans?

Vin Weber, in my interview with him Tuesday, says the answer is still yes (although he doesn’t believe Iraqis would become subordinate to Iran). Do you agree?

The second meaning of the question is the more challenging. For many decades, the U.S. has claimed to be the arsenal of democracy, and has justified wars and other interventions, covert and overt, as part of its mission to liberate oppressed people and spread democracy.

Blots on our record
But the historical record is spotty at best.

President Bush likes to name Germany and Japan as dictatorships that became democracies under U.S. guidance after World War II. The emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe surely owe their liberation from Soviet domination to some extent to the efforts of the United States in the Cold War. But there are few, if any cases, where the U.S. supported the creation of a democracy in circumstances where it seemed possible that elections would produce an anti-American government.

And there are a great many less-pleasant cases in which the United States overthrew or helped to overthrow a functioning democracy that had offended Washington or threatened to work against U.S. interests. Guatemala’s JacoboArbenz, Chile’s Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo are well-established cases in which the U.S. worked to overthrow elected leaders. In all three cases the elected government were replaced with dictators who then became a U.S. allies.

A long list of brutal dictatorships remained and still remain on good terms with Washington.

One of the things I appreciated about Vin Weber’s interview, is that he acknowledged the history. Current U.S. claims that it favors widespread democracy in the Middle East face a wall of skepticism and cynicism, he confessed, because for decades the U.S. was comfortable with pro-American but undemocratic regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, the Saudi royal family, and the Shah of Iran. (The Iran case, whch happens to be next door to Iraq, is one of those in which the CIA undermined a democratic government, led by Mohammed Mossadegh, and handed power to a pro-American monarch.

That’s changed under the post-9/11 Bush doctrine, Weber asserts. But it is understandable if some in the region don’t believe us at first. The enemies of the U.S. will argue that democratization is a Trojan horse for U.S. influence. The only cure for that is to keep saying and keep proving by its actions that the U.S. really means it until the skeptics begin believing it, Weber says.

Do you believe it?

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Are the Iraqis like our Founding Fathers

Monday, December 12th, 2005

Good morning, fellow seekers of wisdom and truth.

In Philadelphia Monday, President Bush (
Here’s the text off the White House website) portrayed Thursday’s elections as the culmination of the creation of a sovereign, elected, full-term Iraqi government. (Here’s a brief timeline of the steps along this path).

As in the previous two speeches that constitute Bush’s answer to Iraq war critics, the president was more willing than he used to be to acknowledge past mistakes in the U.S. management of post-Saddam Iraq. And he continued his recent, much more accurate description of the elements of the insurgency, contrary to his earlier habit of describing them all as terrorists.

While acknowledging that “this week’s elections won’t be perfect, and a successful vote is not the end of the process” Bush did make the fairly grand prediction that “the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East, and the history of freedom.”

Similarities between Philadelphia 1776 and Baghdad 2005?

Speaking in Philadelphia, Bush went to some lengths to compare Iraq now with the United States during the period from the Declaration of Independence (signed in Philly, 1776) to the ratification of the Constitution (drafted in Philly, 1787.)

Historical analogies are always tricky. What do you think of that one?

Defining victory

Bush repeated the definition of what will constitute victory in Iraq: “Victory will be achieved when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks against our nation.”

For those wondering whether Bush might be planning to declare victory and start the withdrawal after Thursday, or at least in time for the 2006 midterm elections, his language Monday hinted otherwise: “Oh, I know some fear the possibility that Iraq could break apart and fall into a civil war. I don’t believe these fears are justified. They’re not justified so long as we do not abandon the Iraqi people in their hour of need.”

He repeated the formulation that: “As the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down. And when victory is achieved, our troops will then return home with the honor they have earned.”

Does that mean all the troops?

For those wondering whether Bush is willing to make a commitment that the U.S. does not seek long-term military bases in Iraq, Bush disclosed that, while the U.S. formerly had about 90 bases in Iraq, “we’ve closed about 40 — or turned over — closed or turned over 40 of those bases to the Iraqis. In other words, our profile is beginning to move back as the Iraqis get trained up.”

And he said: “We are working to build capable and effective Iraqi security forces, so they can take the lead in the fight, and eventually take responsibility for the safety and security of their citizens without major foreign assistance.”

Hmm. That third-to-last word, “major” assistance. And that talk of lowering our profile. Might that leave an opening for long-term U.S. bases?

Michael Rubin thinks that’s the plan. See my interview with him.

Rubin said that the idea of getting the U.S. military completely out of Iraq is only important to the American left, but that Iraqis don’t really object to long-term U.S. bases, if they are outside the Iraqi cities.

Some of the neo-cons made clear years ago that getting bases in Iraq was part of what would make toppling Saddam worth it for the U.S. Do you agree that having long-term U.S. military bases in Iraq is at least part of what would make the war worth it? Do you believe that was part of the administration’s reasoning from the beginning?

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What if the Sunnis lose?

Saturday, December 10th, 2005

Good morning fellow seekers of wisdom and truth.Welcome to Post #1 of The Big Question. Hope that name is not too hyped up. There’s always more than one big question out there. But surely Iraq belongs on the short list.

Please join in. But please, no flaming. Hoping for reasoned fact-based, discussion. Civility and substance. Seeking common understanding, at least of the facts, among folks who may disagree about the conclusions. Hoping that you will also raise good questions, including some on which I can follow up with good reporting. Also, tell us what we can do to make this experiment more valuable to you. Okay, here goes:

Will Thursday’s Iraqi election make a difference?

The Iraq experts, whose views are available above, disagree on many things. But there is consensus that Thursday’s election is no magic bullet that will end the insurgency, facilitate the early withdrawal of U.S. troops, or usher in the Iraqi Age of Aquarius.

(By the way, if you read their views and want challenge their facts or ask them follow-up questions, jump in and contribute your comments . I can do some reporting to try to settle factual disputes, call these guys back to seek answers to your questions, or introduce more expert voices.)

The highest realistic hope is for a step in the direction of stability and democracy. They generally agree that a big turnout (especially among Sunnis, since they boycotted the January election and have links to the insurgents), not too much election day violence and a good report card from international observers will be the best indicators that Iraq is making progress.

Shame on us if we are not inspired by Iraqis’ willingness vote, especially in the areas where any evidence of participation might be taken as collaboration with the occupiers and punished by death.


A bit lame?

But Iraq has already pulled off two successful election days this year. Why is this different? The argument that it’s the first election of a “permanent‿ government under the new Constitution is a bit lame. Nothing is permanent in the current Iraqi political chaos. And the Constitution is still in play. The draft kept changing long after it was declared finished in the fall. Then a last-minute deal was reached to kick the most difficult Sunni objections down the road until after Thursday’s election.

To become an important step down a brighter path, Thursday’s election has to lead to all major groups, especially Sunni Arabs, feeling reasonably represented in the next Parliament and the next coalition.

If the Sunnis feel their minimum requirements for changes in the existing Constitution are met (how these changes are slipped into an already-ratified Constitution is unclear to me; another ratification vote?) and if they conclude that democracy gives them a chance at political and economic leverage, their interest in sustaining the insurgency could diminish.

A lot of ifs

But those are a lot of ifs. Sunnis may want some things that they can never get through the democratic process, because they are roughly a 20 percent minority and under Saddam they had about 80 percent of the power and Michael Rubin, who talks to a lot of Iraqi Sunnis, has told me in an interview that not all Sunnis have accepted that they have no God-given right to control the whole country.

The willingness of the Shia and the Kurds to compromise on their fundamental desires (think regional autonomy, revenue from the oil in their own regions, and deBaathification of the Iraqi power structure) to appease the Sunnis – who represent their former oppressors – may be limited.

On the other hand, if most Sunnis do participate on Thursday, and don’t get what they want through politics, they will have the option of going back to violence to push for more power.

That’s one thought I had after doing the interviews and other reporting to get this package ready.. Please jump in to improve on what I’ve said, challenge or expound on the expert interviews, or address (please, civil and substantive), one of these questions:

More questions, many takes

Is the real significance of the election, the political cover they will give the Bush administration to start withdrawing troops? (see my interview with Robert Packer, who says yes.)

Does it matter much to the U.S. who wins on Thursday (for a guide to the major slates, see this), or only whether a legitimate government takes office? Is the U.S. sincerely committed to Iraqi democracy? (See Abbas Mehdi’s comments. He’s actually hoping the U.S. will steal the election for Iyad Allawi.)

Can any election result be legitimate under the current circumstances: foreign occupation, an ongoing insurgency, assassination of candidates, intimidation of any form of participation, political parties that are based on ethnicity and religion moreso than ideology or policy, party militias that are stronger than the Iraqi military? (See Michael Barnett’s thoughts on the minimum requirements of a democracy, or Les Campbell’s comments on the problem of militias.)

Can the situation get any worse in Iraq? (See the interview with Phebe Marr, who says, yes, much worse, which is why the troops have to stay.)

If the election produces a government dominated by anti-American, anti-Israel Islamists allied to Iran (see Juan Cole’s interview for a consideration of that scenario) can that be worth the price America will have paid to bring it about?

Is there a path from where we are today to an outcome that will make the whole thing worth it to to the U.S.? How about to Iraqis?

– Eric Black


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