Making a Case in the U.S. for Iraqi Progress

Congress is wrestling with the question of funding the Iraq war: The House has passed a bill to parcel out funds in installments, and this week, the Senate will probably vote on a bill of its own. For the past week, one of Iraq's most prominent political leaders has been meeting with those lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Barham Salih, a Kurd, is one of Iraq's deputy prime ministers. He talks with NPR's Michele Norris about why members of Congress said many of them are running out of patience with Iraq's leaders, and why he thinks an early U.S. pullout would be disastrous:

Barham Salih: I can understand that perhaps the present posture of American troops in the urban centers of Iraq, and American kids in Humvees wandering the streets of Baghdad, may not be an image that Americans can tolerate for much longer. I can understand this thing. But this is a battle against an enemy called al Qaida and international terrorism that is transcending borders, and it is attacking here in the United States; it is attacking us in Iraq. We cannot afford – we have to adapt in a way that we can win it in time. It is important that we enter at [a] different level of partnership between the Iraqi government and Iraqi leadership and the United States, because ultimately it is about Iraq leadership. I can tell you this readily, and I have said this back in Baghdad: Americans cannot deliver for us; we have to deliver for our own country.

You say Iraq needs to deliver for itself, to stand on its own. Until it's able to do that, if you are against any kind of timetable for withdrawal, how long do you think the U.S. should or would be involved in Iraq?

I think more and more reliance will have to be placed on the Iraqi side, and we are witnessing that. When we assumed sovereignty in 2004 – June 2004 – we had no forces. Now Iraqi police and Iraqi military are nearly 400,000 or so.

In terms of time, I can tell you the vision that we have – and this is something that we and the administration are on accord on this matter – is that we build Iraqi forces. As more Iraqi troops come online, they assume more responsibility, and our reliance on the Americans will be less than before. I hope we will reach a stage where Americans will not be needed for daily combat operations, where the Americans will be redeployed to a strategic posture, where they will be there as an asset to fight in a strategic sense, where they are needed to fight the extremists and the terrorists, or to deter regional interferences. I think that is not impossible to imagine in the foreseeable future.

Now, Dr. Salih, I didn't hear in that answer a time frame. For many Americans, what they're uncomfortable with is this open-ended commitment.

I don't think there should be an open-ended commitment. The reason I am avoiding a time frame per se is because I don't want to let the enemy know what the time frame will be, and I don't want him just to simply wait us out. If people think that this can be fixed in any given American cycle – political cycle – they will be proven wrong. This is very much like the Cold War. This is a long-term struggle. We need to be honest about that, clear about it, but I am readily willing to accept that the present posture of American deployment in Iraq may not be sustainable from a domestic point of view. How can we change that process so that it will be sustainable, so that we can win it and not let time be used against us?

Is the surge working?

On a security level, yes — many districts of Baghdad have been cleared of terrorists and militias; [there have been] many important discoveries of weapon caches and bomb factories. [A] new phase of the operation has started. And I have to remind you also that the full deployment of forces has not taken place yet.

The surge gives us the time to lock in a political settlement, a power-sharing arrangement that will create the political coalition needed to defeat an al Qaida and support and enhance our military capabilities. The surge – so far, so good, but we need to do better on the political track.

If the political framework is so important – there is one issue that has left many members of Congress scratching their heads – why are lawmakers planning a two-month summer break when so much key legislation is still at a stalemate?

Well, there is a saying that one has also to be careful what one wishes for. We wished for a democracy in our part of the world, an independence of the legislature, and our legislature is powerful and [has] a mind of [its] own – actually, 275 minds of their own. These are the numbers of Iraqi parliamentarians.

I'm glad to tell you that I spoke to the speaker of parliament a couple of days ago. He told me that he and the prime minister have had a discussion about this thing. They have decided to postpone their recess so that they will remain in session in July, awaiting proposed legislation to go to them from the government.

I want to return to something you said. In your estimation, you say the surge is working, but might this be a temporary breakthrough in the areas where they've actually been able to provide some measure of security, if the extremists or the insurgents or whatever you call them are merely leaving the area and planning to wait out the U.S. and Iraqi forces and return the minute they let up pressure?

That is the danger. How can we sustain the military gains? It's not just a matter of clearing a neighborhood for a day and then relieving it and creating a vacuum. We are working now on measures by which these military victories, these security measures, could be sustained beyond a search.

What is the message that you leave with after your visit here and your many meetings?

I leave with a message – and it is a helpful message, by the way; it will help me debate this issue in the Iraqi cabinet and with my parliamentarian colleagues – of frustration and one of waning patience with this transition in Iraq, [a message] that we need to do better, we need to demonstrate progress on a different scale. The world's greatest democracy is helping us, wants to help us, but we need to demonstrate that they have a much more effective partner in that. I believe it's a positive message; it's not damning. I have not heard, by the way, from anybody that they want to throw in the towel with these guys. I mean –

But are you getting a message that patience is wearing thin?

[It] is wearing thin, but they need to see progress. And Americans should understand it is not only the government of Iraq at the other end receiving this message; other interested parties are also receiving this message, some of whom are liking it, and they want to feed your frustration and want to escalate the conflict in Baghdad ... so that they can grow this frustration in the United States. The question is, how [do] we win this thing? The fate of Iraq is not only important for Iraq, as it is important for the rest of the region as well.

Dr. Salih, thank you for coming in to talk to us.

Thank you for this opportunity.

That was Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister of Iraq.

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