Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The Iraq End Game: The Krauthammer Version

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 8 November 2011 19:17

Not all of what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes is easy to agree with. However, in his latest take on the Iraq policy of the Obama administration, despite some degree of simplification and hyperbole, there are some good points relating to Iraqi government formation in 2010 that are not usually articulated in US policy-making circles.

Krauthammer writes,

“Three years, two abject failures. The first was the administration’s inability, at the height of American post-surge power, to broker a centrist nationalist coalition governed by the major blocs — one predominantly Shiite (Maliki’s), one predominantly Sunni (Ayad Allawi’s), one Kurdish — that among them won a large majority (69 percent) of seats in the 2010 election.

Vice President Joe Biden was given the job. He failed utterly. The government ended up effectively being run by a narrow sectarian coalition where the balance of power is held by the relatively small (12 percent) Iranian-client Sadr faction.”

This is true.

At least to some extent. Krauthammer is making the valid point that not everyone needed to be included in the second Iraqi government, and that the eventual inclusion of the Sadrists did make Maliki overly reliant on Iran.

At the actual time of the government-formation struggle, the idea of a more compact government was propagated most enthusiastically by former US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who as early as in April wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times,

“The Obama administration should not sit back and allow Iran and sectarian parties to decide Iraq’s political future. President Barack Obama needs to send a message that Iraq is for the Iraqis, not for the mullahs in Tehran and their Iraqi surrogates.

To this end the US needs to adopt a more hands-on approach and encourage the Maliki coalition, the Allawi coalition and the Kurdish alliance to form a grand coalition and avoid steps that would drive Mr Maliki into accepting Iran’s proposals.”

The problem was that this and other US proposals for “intervention” only envisaged a desirable end result, i.e.  a coalition of Iraqiyya, State of Law and the Kurds. They did not address or engage with the question of how their preferred nominee for prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, would actually end up getting that position in accordance with Iraqi constitutional procedure.

When the Americans found themselves unable to square desired end games with constitutional process, instead of looking more carefully at the constitution or ideas circulating among the Iraqis at the time, they began making up the rules themselves. This included complete inventions like the strategic policy council – designed as a consolation prize for Ayad Allawi  in lieu of the premiership –  as well as a last-minute attempt to oversell him the largely symbolic presidency. Khalilzad’s own preferred solution was a suggestion for splitting the premiership in two two-year terms, which again was unconstitutional and almost certain to end up with an acrimonious struggle once the first term neared expiry, if not earlier.

The disastrous outcome of these failures – both that of the largely passive Obama administration as well as the general haplessness of the minority “hands-on” crowd that preferred the Khalilzad approach – is the oversized, still-not-quite-seated Iraqi government of today, unable to deliver Washington the extension of the SOFA that at least the Pentagon, if not the White House, had been craving for.

What the Americans could have done instead was to listen to the Iraqi debate at the time, where ideas that could have solved the whole issue actually existed. The first step would have been the formation of a super-bloc of Maliki’s State of Law and the secular Iraqiyya. This coalition could have ruled itself with a majority of about 180 deputies in parliament, or could have added the Kurds later on (the Kurds had signalled they would not be part of a greater bloc formation, so the premiership issue would have to be settled between Allawi and Maliki). The key point is that the new bloc could have agreed on a prime minister, most probably Maliki, that would not have been dependent upon the Sadrists or Iran.

Arguably, to all parties including the Kurds, the best way of structuring the government would actually have been to exclude the Kurds entirely. By so doing, the government would have had greater incentives for developing internal coherence and autonomy versus the stormy regional environment, and would also have been in a better position to provide generous concessions to the KRG. The problem was that the sheer thought of not having the Kurds included would have prompted immediate panic in Beltway circles, where there seems to be general ignorance of the fact that the whole idea behind deep autonomy for the Kurds in the constitution is precisely to safeguard them against the prospect of no representation at the level of the central government. The checks and balances were already in place, and yet Washington kept clamouring for more!

A smaller governance-oriented cabinet would have confined the federalism question to the KRG and in turn provided for greater leeway in oil-related negotiations and territorial bargains. Conversely, in today’s situation with a weak, oversized cabinet and 15 un-federated governorates that are increasingly looking like potential federalism threats, paranoia and authoritarianism are likely to characterise the executive in the months and years to come.

Let’s not forget that Charles Krauthammer enthusiastically gave his stamp of approval to the happy-go-lucky federalism clauses of the Iraqi constitutional draft in September 2005.

26 Responses to “The Iraq End Game: The Krauthammer Version”

  1. Well said Reidar.
    I would speculate that the precise moment the US gave in to Iranian pressure and forsaken the Iraqi political process was when the US yielded to Talbani’s pleading (supported by lobbyists) for more postponement in nominating a premiere.

  2. Santana said

    Reidar- This is all history…why are we talkin about it now? The 180 was probably the best solution but I doubt that Maliki has any regrets, infact I think he is grateful it never worked out… he got a helluva lot more with the “Nowrooz” plan….Iraq is heading downhill fast…Sunnis calling for federalism is a strong indicator of how desperate things have become…..the Sunnis feel that if they don’t get their own “Iqleem” than they will end up as refugees in nearby countries after a major spike in violence and another civil war that Iran will instigate as soon as the U.S is completely out. The Kurds are next….and Obama is busy with his stupid re-election. Iran is fully aware that the window of opportunity to fully take over in Iraq is 12-14 months tops.

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Santana, I agree much of this is history but there is not much news out of Iraq due to the Eid right now. And I suppose many Iraqis want to keep it that way…

    On a more serious note, I think the idea of a more compact govt could have been resuscitated early this summer related to the question of a US extension. It would however have demanded less orthodoxy with respect to the Arbil agreement.

    As you say, it’s now probably all over unless Maliki has some last-minute surprises in store for his 12 Dec DC visit!

  4. Salah said

    This is all history…

    What this war ended from the mouth of those run it and supported; now some start telling few truths whey they went to Iraq.
    Whatever said and whatever excuses made all” This is all history…” now they trying reposition themselves in new time to come after Iraq misery and lies.

    This war turned US more interested in this that brings democracy and freedom or food and medicine as G W Bush promised in his first letter to Iraqis.
    Then Lady Rice coming now telling “we didn’t go to Iraq to bring democracy to the Iraqis. And I try in the book to really explain that that wasn’t the purpose,”
    She added:

    But don’t we know now that Saddam had no meaningful nuclear weapons program?
    “He had the scientists, he had the infrastructure,”
    Oh yah then who killing Iraqi engineers and scientists? This raise very serious quotation here…who were behind that Mrs Rice?

    Let reed some thought about the above statement here in regards to “meaningful nuclear weapons program” did she read David Kay at Senate hearing in 2004 before she comes on TV?
    “Let me begin by saying, we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here.”

    To get more what happened (This is all history.. ) what this this lady talking about WMD or “meaningful nuclear weapons program”.. here more

    This is all history…

  5. “…..President Barack Obama needs to send a message that Iraq is for the Iraqis, not for the mullahs in Tehran and their Iraqi surrogates.”

    That’s a bit rich coming from the man who brought them in, don’t you think?

  6. Reidar Visser said

    True. The Khalilzad quote was not intended to imply any kind of endorsement!

  7. Xenophon said

    “Not all of what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes is easy to agree with.”

    Well, that’s the understatement of the year.

    “Vice President Joe Biden was given the job. He failed utterly. The government ended up effectively being run by a narrow sectarian coalition where the balance of power is held by the relatively small (12 percent) Iranian-client Sadr faction.”

    And WHO drove Sadr into the arms of the Iranians? He didn’t start out there, that’s for sure.

    It is impossible to plumb the depths of Krauthammer’s dishonesty. He and the other members of his neocon coven who conceived the grandiose design for their imagined reformation of Middle Eastern culture and Islam to suit US strategic imperatives were the ones who truly failed.

    Biden may be a clown in many ways, but to try to blame him for the results of this long debacle is pathetic.

    In any case, if the US doesn’t panic–which is never a sure bet–things may yet turn out OK. Why will Iran instigate a civil war? What do they gain from it? Given the Sunni Arab hostility to Shia empowerment in Iraq, Bahrain and elsewhere, it has been hard up to this point for Iran to overplay its hand. Now it will perhaps have the opportunity. The majority of Shia opted to vote for the Shia party least aligned with Iran. That should tell the Iranians something.

    Maliki has been extremely resourceful in playing everyone off against everyone else. I doubt that anyone who was not willing to indulge in some hardball Machiavellianism would have survived to this point. I’m not yet convinced by those who for years have been seeing another Saddam waiting to emerge. But now we’ll see.

    I don’t think it was ever in the cards for the Maliki not to bring the other Shia parties into the government despite the election power plays of Sadr/ISCI/and, yes, Iran. Whatever their intramural squabbles, they are not yet ready to risk their newly won empowerment via ambitious, kumbaya schemes as described above. That will come in time IF Shia fears are gradually allayed. If the Sunni are aggressively impatient, or Maliki can’t reign in the excesses of Shia political triumphalism, or there is no agreement with the Kurds, then maybe an Iraqi state just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully, it will work–Inshallah.

  8. Salah said

    , to all parties including the Kurds, the best way of structuring the government would actually have been to exclude the Kurds entirely.

    In your view Reidar this will be very serious for the kurds as they may split completely from Iraq and get their state as they keep working on this slowly for now.

    “The Obama administration should not sit back and allow Iran and sectarian parties to decide Iraq’s political future.

    The biggest US embassy in the world is in baghdad “Green Zone”

    So let read this about Iraqi kids (boys & Grilles) sold by Iraqi parties?

    وتداعيات هذه القضية سوف تؤخذ مداها على افق مختلفه في الأيام القادمة القليله، فقد اعلنت السويد فورا عن فتح استقبال الأطفال العراقيين ممن يتعرضون لسوء المعاملة ومنحهم اللجوء مباشرة، ويحق للطفل بعد الاقامه لم شمل ولي امره إنقاذاً لاطفال ونساء العراق، والأمر أكثر غرابه انه الصحفية تتحدث عن مكان بيع الأطفال وتصفها بالخريطه بأنها بقعه خاصه من داخل المنطقه الخضراء ولا احد يعلم الى اين والى من يباع اطفال العراق.

    حقائق خطيرة عن أسواق لبيع الأطفال في العراق تكشفها الصحف السويدية

  9. Reidar Visser said

    Xenophon, I was making the point that despite the many failings of the Bush administration in Iraq – which are too many and too serious to enumerate within the small confines of this blog – there was a window in early 2009 when things appeared to be coming back on track again. At the time Maliki was actively trying to isolate ISCI and was also reaching out to Sunni/secularist people like Nujayfi, Mutlak and Abu Risha with the aim of forming a political alliance. This made Iran nervous and hence the renewed anti-Baathist energy of the reformed Shiite alliance that was sealed in Tehran in May 2009 through a Hakim-Sadr pact.

    At that critical juncture, all Biden and Obama had to contribute was the usual Sunnis-must-agrees-with-Shiites-and-Kurds tirade. They were in other words unconscious to what was going on.

  10. Salah said

    Talking about Sadrists there is article makes them as An Iraqi Time Bomb, especially with recent news coming from Baghdad suggested Maliki may handover PM position to Ja’afary.

    This almost the spark to ignite the sectarian war as in 2005 under Ja’afary w\Iran.

    التحالف الكردستاني و اياد علاوي و كتل اخرى اعلنت موافقتها المبدئية
    مصادر في التحالف الوطني تكشف عن إمكانية إستبدال المالكي بالجعفري في رئاسة الوزراء

    كشفت مصادر مطلعة من داخل التحالف الوطني العراقي لوكالة أنباء شط العرب بأن هناك مخطط يدور في أروقة التحالف يقضي الى استبدال رئيس الوزراء العراقي نوري المالكي بالدكتور إبراهيم الجعفري رئيس الوزراء السابق .

    وقالت المصادر ان بعض الكتل المنضوية في التحالف تعتقد بأن المالكي فشل في ادارة ملف الخدمات و الامن و تبدل الى مشكلة عالقة لا تحل الى بابعاد المالكي نفسه من منصب رئاسة الوزراء .

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Would the Kurds really prefer Jaafari to Maliki? Would all these people really dare to walk away from their current portfolios as required by the constitutional modalities for sacking the PM??

  12. Kermanshahi said

    “Arguably, to all parties including the Kurds, the best way of structuring the government would actually have been to exclude the Kurds entirely. By so doing, the government would have had greater incentives for developing internal coherence and autonomy versus the stormy regional environment, and would also have been in a better position to provide generous concessions to the KRG.”

    Reidar, let me tell you the main problem with this. It would not have happened. Infact, you would be delusional to think that a Allawi-Mutlaq-Nujayfi-Hashemi-Maliki-Shahristani coalition would “provide generous concessions to the KRG” – they would not have given a single meaningfull concession to the Kurds. Maybe, at most, some of them, would have been willing to give some economic concessions, but judging by al-Maliki’s history, if he doesn’t need your vote, you’re not gonna get anything. No, what an alliance of Arab Nationalists, most of which former stooges of Saddam which ran on an anti-Kurdish platform would have done, is crush the Kurds in every single political point and you know what would have happened? WAR!

    And we all saw what happened in Ninawa, when tough-guy Nujayfi took over and refused to allow Kurds in the local government, then started to push forth his extreme anti-Kurdish views in authoritarian manner, the Kurds simply did not accept it, they quit the local council and used armed Peshmerga to seize control of the North of the province and establish their own administration. Then they arrested each others people and eventualy the only reason there was not a war, was that there were Kurds in the national government, which were able to constrain the national government, which controlls the security forces.

    But in case of an all-Arab, natioanlistic government, they would have not only angered Kurds by not representing them and by not doing anything they want. They would have passed legislation against the Kurds, cutting rights of the KRG, abolishing article 140, and then the Kurds would have gone to war, or if not, the Iraqi government would have been led into a war with the Kurds by all these hot-head Arab nationalists which would have tried to clear Ninawa, Kerkuk and Diyala of Kurdish Peshmerga (and I wouldn’t even put it beyond al-Mutlaq or al-Nujayfi to try disband the KRG – and al-Maliki would definetly sign on to it) and it would have been DISASTEROUS!

    And as I have reminded you of before, you know what happened last time there was an all-Arab government in Iraq? HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of Kurds were GASSED! You think we just forgot about that? But oh, now some former Ba’ath party members and Saddam business associates want to set up a “nonsecterian” government without Kurds, so let’s just sit and watch? You think the Kurds will let that happen? And if the US would promote such a deal, what do you think the Kurdish reaction towards the US would be? Instantly the Kurds will turn on them and join up with whomever doesn’t want such a government, and whoever opposes the US. US doesn’t want this, also they don’t want to get caught right in the middle of a civil war much more bloody than even the one between Shias and Sunnis, right in the middle of their withdrawl. Especialy since they paid a billions dollars to train and equip both sides. That’s why your views here are not realistic. This is not Norway, this is Iraq, and if there is one group you don’t want to exclude and antagonise it’s the Kurds just such short time since the last genocide, especialy since they have the largest militia in the country and can do the most damage and most certainly will do it.

    And yes, Kurds would probably prefer al-Jaafari or infact most prominent politicians in the INA to al-Maliki. Probably there are many members even in the State of Law alliance which would be supported by the Kurds as alternative for al-Maliki. Give Kurds half a chance, they will get rid of him, because with al-Maliki they have never got a single thing. Only reason they approved him this time is that Iraqiyya just kept insisting on polar opposites of everything the Kurds want and compromise was impossible. With al-Maliki atleast he just postones everything, and he doesn’t seem that likely to order another al-Anfal, something which many members of Iraqiyya would gladly do, given half a chance.

  13. Santana said

    Maliki or Jaafari ??I can’t decide which is worse- Death by lethal injection or electrocution ? I doubt Maliki would agree anyway.

    30 Million people in Iraq and we are stuck with a handful of Iranian loving traitors to choose from…..maybe Hadi Alameri should raise his hand for PM as well?- what a shame.

  14. Salah said

    “Would the Kurds really prefer Jaafari to Maliki? Would all these people really dare to walk away from their current portfolios as required by the constituional modalities for sacking the PM??”

    Former Zionist Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter has explicitly said: our strategic choice in Iraq is to partition the country. Reports speak that ringleaders of the illegal Zionist entity are conspiring to target Iraqi unity by instigating certain Kurdish elements to demand partitioning of the country along ethnic lines. Former Zionist Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter has explicitly said: our strategic choice in Iraq is to partition the country. Over the past seven years of US occupation, Israel has infiltrated Iraq through commercial ties with certain elements in the country. Presently, hundreds of Zionist companies are active in Iraq especially in Kurdistan autonomous region as is evident by their Hebrew names. Israeli businessmen often use passports of other countries to enter Iraq. The Zionist plot is to blackmail the Kurds to provide a pipeline connection to Israel through oil-rich Kirkuk by instigating Arab-Kurdish ethnic disputes.

    Reidar &


    “I doubt Maliki would agree anyway.”

    Ok, might be referring to early reported story of Mullah asking Maliki to step aside as most religious parties struggling to have any confidence in the streets of Iraq.

    The story was:
    مرجع الدعوة الجديد يطلب من المالكي التفرغ للحزب وترشيح شخصية اخرى لرئاسة الحكومة

  15. Kermanshahi said

    ^^If the Zionists get an American puppet in charge of Iraq, he will also be their puppet. They only want to split the country if Islamic leaders take over.

    But as for the Kurds, they have wanted independence from Iraq long before Israel was even created and the fact that you killed 280,000 of them doesn’t make matters better. So quit blaming Israel and start blaming your precious Ba’athis leaders for what they have done to Iraqi unity through their racist policies and vicious genocides.

  16. Kermanshahi,
    You bring tears to my eyes when you talk about war! The Kurds need the US the way a newborn needs its mother’s bosom. The Kurdish decision to go to war must be 99% American otherwise it is pure suicide for the Kurds and all the 5000 tanks they looted from the Iraqi army. The argument behind every political argument is war but the Kurds don’t own it. Barzani is consulting with the US, let’s see how committed is the Obama administration to waging war on behalf of the Kurds.

  17. Kermanshahi said

    Faisalkadri, this is not 1975, that large army you used to have has been completely decimated. Even in 1991 the Arabs were unable to defeat the Kurds without air support, and then Saddam still had several hundred thousand soldiers, one of the largest artillery inventories on earth and several thousand tanks. Today the Iraqi army is nothing but a weak and divided force without any heavy weapons (and yes, most of them were looted by the Kurds) or air force to support it. Today the Iraqi central army is both outmanned and outgunned by the Peshmerga, it is internally divided and can hardly stop the Arabs from killing each other. Infact, the Iraqi army cannot even deploy more than fraction of it’s, now small and weak army, to fight the Kurds, because majority of it’s troops were to be sent North the cities they leave behind will descent into chaos and civil war, or simply be seized by insurgents and militiamen.

    The KRG is strong enough, they do not need US to fight war on it’s behalf. Infact for the last 8 years Us has been fightin a war on behalf of the Iraqi central government, which will fall apart without either American or Iranian lifeline, but you are quick to forget this when talking about Kurds.

    For who will it be suicide if all your troops are sent to charge at our mountains, outmanned and outgunned, leaving their cities full of thousands of suicide bombers, death squads and militias to rip the place up? Yes, the situation has radicaly changed and so Iraqi central government cannot anymore treat Kurds with the same arrogance and racism as it did in the past. The reason neither al-Maliki or any of the Arab nationalist tough guys has dared to exclude Kurds from their government is because they know it will be suicide FOR IRAQ!

  18. Observer said

    New freaking iPad. Can’t type….
    I thought this is a serious blog!!!! My bad. Are you guys seriously debating a war between keg and Baghdad? Do any of you even visit Iraq on periodic basis? Or all we have here is a bunch of keyboard activists? Give me a break people and get real. Kermenshahi, whatever weed you are on, quit and fast man. Geeze it is getting to your head. Do you know how fast Kurdistan would ie economically if there is war? What are you guys blathering about? Man oh man. Maybe I should go to observe mode for a while to see if this site actually deserves the time to read. Riedar, given that this is a moderated blog, please keep the discussions real.
    Thanks and happy eid and let’s go back to reality.

  19. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, you are quite right. Lately, I have tended to start working on the next article instead when discussions derail, but I should have been stricter. Again, no incitement to violence (this includes wars!), racism, sectarian cleansing or character assassination please.

  20. Kermanshahi said

    The thing is, you can act as much as you like as if a war between Kurds and Baghdad is impossible, no matter how racist and anti-Kurdish the Iraqi government decides to act but the simple fact is, how many times have they gone to war before? Kurdistan and Iraq have been at war longer than they’ve been at piece, that is reality. Now you can be arrogant about it and act as if you can do whatever you like without any consequences, but Kurds already have armed troops in Kerkuk, you think they are just going to leave if al-Iraqiyya and al-Maliki pass a resolution against them? If you try to dissolve the KRG or force Peshmerga out of Mosul and Kerkuk, than that IS war. How do you not understand that?

  21. Reidar Visser said

    Kermanshahi, whether that was incitement or an attempt at description is unclear to me, but OK. In the near future, I find it more likely that the Kurds will try their luck with heaping pressure on Maliki in order to win some further concessions.

  22. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, I didn’t see your last post when I was typing, but yes, ofcourse I agree, the Kurds are much more likely to use political measures to get concessions than to just suddenly go to war and I’m not saying that the Kurds are likely to go to war with Iraq in the current situation, or that a stituation in which they would go to war will occur soon. And look, Kurds are tying to push for peacefull solutions, like referendums. I think you did not properly understand me, see, what I was saying is, that if such situation as you descrived would have occured: an all-Arab government, packed with Ba’athists and all trying to push through a vehimently anti-Kurdish agenda without any negotation with the Kurdish minority which they exclude from government, than there will be a war. But it is clear, that that is not going to happen, because there is an understanding in Iraq that they cannot make a government without the Kurds and unilateraly push through an anti-Kurdish agenda. You were suggesting they better exclude Kurds from the government and create a pan-Arabist Allawi-Mutlaq-Hashemi-Nujayfi-Maliki-Shahristani alliance to push through their policies with efficiency and without Kurds as partner (so they don’t need to talk to them), and I was just pointing out why that didn’t happen and why that is not going to happen.

    Now getting to the article, I’ve got a few things to say about that aswell. Has not noticed the hypocracy of this Krauthammer guy?

    “Iraq is for the Iraqis, not for the mullahs in Tehran” so “the US needs to adopt a more hands-on approach” – so wait a second, he is saying that foreign Americans should interfeare in Iraq politics, because foreign Iranians shouldn’t interfeare in Iraqi politics, but that makes absolutely no sense. Iraq is for the Iraqis and therefore al-Maliki shouldn’t be working with Iranian surrogates, so we should encourage him to work with American surrogates.

    I find it very ironic how a country which invaded Iraq, violently overthrew it’s government and then violently occupied the country for 8 years and is still doing so, thinks it has the right to critisize others for meddling. Oh but ofcourse, I don’t understand, American interfearance is good, other interfearance is bad. Except for the fact that American interfearance resulted in the death of 1,000,000 innocent Iraqis and Iranian interfearance resulted in … some politicians getting bought? The arrogance is just unlimited.

  23. Salah said


    For curiosity if you don’t mind a question.

    Did you born inside Iraq?
    How long you visited Iraq?
    How many visits on regular basis from 1990 till now?

  24. Reidar Visser said

    Just to be clear, since the general question of interventionism keeps coming up: The idea of US intervening in the post-election struggle in 2010 only makes sense as an attempt at rectifying previous mistakes and the artificial empowerment of pro-Iranian elites in the 2003-2007 period.

    Of course, the question of going into Iraq in the firt place remains a separate matter altogether.

  25. Kermanshahi,

    Just a slight correction. It was Zalmay Khalilzad who wrote the above quote, not Krauthammer. Hence my comment at the top of the thread. It should also be noted that ZK was the individual who opened the door to the pro-Iran exiles.

    I’d also like to point out to you that Iraqi Arabs have been mindful of this American cognitive dissonance for quite some time.

  26. Kermanshahi said

    The fact that Zalmay Khalilzad said it, only reflects the arrogance and hypocracy of the American imperialists. They way they think it is their right to interfear with everything and than the way they react towards other countris “meddling.” There should be not a single American soldier in the Middle East.

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