Outgoing U.S. Envoy Defends Iraq Progress

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill i i

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, seen here in November, says there has been much reconciliation between Iraq's political groupings, but more needs to be done. Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, seen here in November, says there has been much reconciliation between Iraq's political groupings, but more needs to be done.

Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

Five months after Iraqis voted in a general election, Iraq is having trouble forming a new government even as U.S. troops draw down, but the outgoing U.S. ambassador says the country is making progress.

"I think any country where the election result is 4/100th of a percentage point difference between the winner and the second-place coalition is going to have some pushing and shoving, and that's what going on," Christopher Hill told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "So the question is: Are they getting anywhere? And, I must say, in the last couple of weeks, the pace has really quickened. And there's a feeling that things may be heading in the right direction."

Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite coalition and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Sunni bloc have been vying for power since the March 7 election. The results of the election were so close that neither man won enough seats to form a government.

Hill noted that though the divisions in Iraq seem like they are along ethnic lines, the reality is more complicated.

"Another way to put it is this is identity politics and, yes, people have an identity as Shia or an identity as Sunni," he said. "But I'd like to point out there are a number of Shia parties who are quite at each other's throats.

"So it's not the defining characteristic. It's not all Shia against all Sunni."

As the U.S. begins its troop reduction in Iraq, critics such as former Congressman Lee Hamilton have said the national reconciliation, which the "surge" of U.S. troops was supposed to create a space for, has not occurred. Hill debated that assessment but acknowledged that there are challenges.

"There are people known as unreconcilables — people, you know, firing rockets in the Green Zone or exploding car bombs," he said. "These are not people who are going to be bought off, you know, by giving them the Culture Ministry in a government formation exercise.

"But, I would say, in terms of main political groupings ... there's been a lot of reconciliation here, but obviously more needs to be done."

Hill said that as he prepares to leave Iraq, he is optimistic about its future. He said it remains a country important to U.S. interests and one that has signed deals with the major global oil companies.

"Iraq is not just America's problem," he said. "Other countries have a real stake in its success."

Hill also praised his relationship with the military, noting that the U.S. was transitioning from a military-led presence in Iraq to a civilian-led presence.

"As the military is moving, just in my tenure, from 140,000 to 50,000, this embassy has become the largest embassy in the world," he said. "Along with the Great Wall of China, it's one of the things you can see with the naked eye from outer space. It's huge.

"I don't think there is any doubt that we're committed to a long-term presence here. And I think that's the most important thing that our military wants to hear."

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