Iraq's government is operating "under extreme conditions" and rebuilding its institutions "takes time," Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, says.
"The motivation is there, but the instruments are not there, the environment is not there," he tells Steve Inskeep in an interview. "But it's getting to be there."
During his congressional testimony this week, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said as diplomatically as possible what critics of the war have said more bluntly: They think Iraq's government has accomplished less than it should.
"I do believe that Iraq's leaders have the will to tackle the country's pressing problems, although it will take longer than we originally anticipated because of the environment and the gravity of the issues before them," Crocker told a joint House panel on Monday.
Inskeep talks with Samir Sumaidaie about the obstacles the Iraqi government faces in implementing legislation and bringing the country under control.
Gen. Petraeus also said in the last few days that he thought the effort to build a stable government hasn't worked out as hoped. Are these leaders right?
Well, up to a point. But there are reasons for this. The Iraqi government is operating under extreme conditions, some people would say impossible conditions. They have government institutions which had collapsed at the end of Saddam's regime and they had to bring them right from the ground up again. That takes time. We live in a period of violence and tensions. The Iraqi government is making progress, but not perhaps as fast as you would expect a normal government to make.
The reasons that you give, ambassador, would seem to be the same reasons that some Americans would say there should be progress. They will argue that because of the motivation of this violence, you would think that the Iraqi government would be pulling itself a little more rapidly — passing an oil law, figuring out the distribution of power, doing the things that they have to do to confront the threat.
Absolutely. The motivation is there, but the instruments are not there, the environment is not there. But it's getting to be there. On the passing of the legislation, we are making progress on agreeing [to] the principles, and these things take some time.
Has the time bought, if we can put it that way, by the U.S. military effort of the last several months led to any progress, allowed any extra room for that debate?
Yes, I believe it has. Maybe not quite to the liking of people here in Washington. But remember, we are all relaxed here, we are safe. I have just come back from Iraq and I see government leaders having to look over their shoulders every step. And their productivity is of course not as high as it would be if we were sitting in Washington or Philadelphia.
Let me ask about something cited as progress by Gen. Petraeus among others. He's talking about what has been happening in the western part of the country in Anbar province, which is Sunni dominated and had been extraordinarily violent until recent months.
"A year ago, the province was assessed as lost politically. Today it is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qaida and reject its Taliban-like ideology." — Gen. David Petraeus, in testimony before Congress
So ambassador, what the U.S. tried here was working more closely with local tribal leaders. Do you want something similar to Anbar to happen in other parts of the country when they're unstable?
Every place in Iraq has its own distinctive characteristics. You cannot translate experiences exactly from one area to another. But the message is clear: Stand up for yourselves, protect your communities against the terrorists, and the central government and the Americans will be with you and other problems can be solved by dialogue.
Is there danger then that in each individual neighborhood, whoever's got the biggest militia will be the group that provides security and ends up with the power, whether it's Sunnis in the west, whether it's Shiites in the south, whether it's Kurds — which has already effectively happened — in the north?
[The] Iraqi constitution is clear. Militias are not allowed. This is a transitional situation. It cannot be allowed to be permanent. We cannot have different areas of Iraq run by militias.
Is it happening even though you don't want to accept it?
Well, it has happened. There are militias in Iraq. But it's one of the problems that we have to address and challenge. The government ultimately has to bring the militias to an end.
You suggested that things may not be happening quickly enough for people in Washington. Is your government trying to lay out realistic plans for what happens if the United States does withdraw a substantial portion of troops more rapidly than you would hope?
Well, the United States might have a choice in terms of whether to stay or to leave. The Iraqi people don't have that choice. What we say is that if the withdrawal is linked not so much to the imperatives of politics in Washington but to the reality on the ground in Iraq, then we can preserve our gains and we can move forward and the result will be positive for the United States and Iraq.
If, however, local conditions are ignored and there is a rush for the exit, the situation in Iraq can deteriorate. We could be in a tailspin which would reflect extremely negatively on the interests of the United States in the region, in Iraq, and of course it would be detrimental for Iraq.