A Conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, discusses the Iraqi draft constitution, the latest military operations against insurgents in Tal Afar and the October elections.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Here are the headlines of some of the stories we're following here at NPR News today. President Bush has toured the flooded city of New Orleans again. Today the president visited the epicenter of the city's catastrophe. And the Senate has opened confirmation hearings on President Bush's choice to be the nation's chief justice. Today's session has been devoted to statements by the committee members, by senators formally introducing Roberts to the committee and by Roberts himself. You can hear details of those stories and others later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

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Right now, an official in the Iraqi Defense Ministry says more than 150 Iraqi insurgents were killed this weekend when the Iraqi army, backed by US troops, launched an offensive against the town of Tall'Afar. A stronghold of the insurgency, Tall'Afar is believed to be a training ground for foreign fighters and a conduit for weapons from Syria. Yesterday, Iraq closed part of its border with Syria.

There has been no let-up in the Sunni-led insurgency as Iraq prepares to vote on a draft of a new constitution next month. In a recent editorial in The Washington Post, Zalmay Khalilzad, America's ambassador to Iraq, said, `The negotiations that led to the draft of the new constitution show that politics has broken out in Iraq,' but he says, `Whether that constitution will serve as a vehicle for uniting Iraq and defeating the insurgency may be decided in the upcoming election.' Ambassador Khalilzad joins us now. If you have any questions about the situation in Iraq, the draft constitution and the October election, give us a call at (800) 989-TALK.

Ambassador Khalilzad, thanks so much for joining us.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (US Ambassador To Iraq): Well, it's a pleasure to be with you.

NEARY: First to the events of this past weekend. This offensive against insurgents was led by the Iraqi army, supported by US troops. How significant is that? What does it say about the readiness of the Iraqi army at this point?

Amb. KHALILZAD: Well, it just shows that Iraq has become increasingly ready to take over security responsibilities. Just three days ago also, we turned over the security responsibility for the city of Najaf to the Iraqi armed forces. Since I have been there, we have formed a joint committee between the United States, other coalition members, particularly Great Britain, and the Iraqi government for transfer of responsibility in the security domain to the Iraqis to come up with a joint plan as to under what conditions which towns will be turned over to Iraqis, for them to assume responsibility and redeploying and changing the role of the coalition forces. What you're seeing is another step in a broader plan for increasing the role of the Iraqi armed forces as they become better prepared to deal with the situation in Iraq.

NEARY: Well, what does that mean then for the continued US military presence in Iraq? I mean, is it possible at all at this time to say how long the US is going to have to stay there?

Amb. KHALILZAD: Well, hard to say exactly how long the US forces will stay there, but it is a time that we can say that the configuration and the numbers of US forces will change, that the numbers over time--meaning in the coming year--will begin to decline, and the role and mission will change; we'll do less of combat, more in support of Iraqi forces and more in the area of training of Iraqi forces. But for the immediate future, the focus of our forces, together with the Iraqis, will be to go after particularly the foreign fighters and those who support the return of the Saddamist regime, but fundamentally, the focus of the operation will be against the foreign fighters.

NEARY: We're talking about the situation in Iraq with the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. If you have any questions for the ambassador, give us a call at 1 (800) 989-8255.

Let's talk about the new draft constitution, which is to be voted on next month. You've written that it should be judged on two standards. The first, its commitment to human rights and democracy; the second on its ability to unite the country. And you say it succeeds on the first count. Why, first of all?

Amb. KHALILZAD: Well, because it has a extremely good set of rights that it grants or guarantees to the population of Iraq. It organizes the government in a way that provides for checks and balances. It does work in terms of a federal structure that brings the Kurds back into Iraq. As you know, the Kurds have not been a de facto part of Iraq since Saddam's invasion of Kuwait; they were outside Iraqi control and were protected by the coalition through a no-fly zone. And it also deals appropriately with concerns having to do with resources such as oil and gas so that the central government will have a significant role in making sure that those resources are used fairly across the nation. It also states that there has to be a new strategy for how resources, such as oil and gas, are developed. I think in terms of the fundamentals, it's a good document. It's a compromise, a synthesis, as I have called it, between the traditional Iraqi values and Islam, but also the universal values of--on principles of democracy and human rights.

NEARY: Now Islam in this document is not the sole source of legislation, but I think--I don't think the language is--it's a fundamental source of legislation.

Amb. KHALILZAD: It is...

NEARY: And...

Amb. KHALILZAD: It is a principal source, and it says no laws can be against the fundamentals of Islam, but at the same time, it says no law can be established in Iraq in violation of the principles of democracy, and it also says that no law can be enacted in violation of the human rights. So it has three principles that document that laws cannot violate democracy and human rights--have been brought to the same level of importance as Islam in terms of the constitution.

NEARY: So you think the protections are there against Islamic law becoming the sole law of the land?

Amb. KHALILZAD: I think the protections are there. But, of course, as you know, it's important as to who the legislators are, who the members of the court are, and I have encouraged Iraqis that--particularly those who are concerned about an excessive role for Islam, to participate in the political process to make sure that those who support democracy, as well as those who support democracy and human rights, are adequately represented in the political process.

NEARY: What about the second count that you said that this must be judged on; that is, its ability to unite the country? How can this document be a means for unifying the country when so many Sunnis are opposed to it?

Amb. KHALILZAD: Well, that is an important issue and, as I said in the piece, the jury's out on that. We will have to see how the referendum turns out. The Sunnis who were there participating in the process, they were not elected. The responsibility for drafting the constitution was with the Assembly, and the Sunnis had boycotted the election before some Sunnis were identified by the international community and were added. They raised a number of issues. Many of those issues were adequately dealt with. Like everyone else, they didn't get everything they wanted. Negotiations are still continuing with them, and the draft has not been really made final. Some edits are taking place. It is, you know, of course, the hope of Iraqis and ourselves as well that there will be some Sunni leadership support for the documents. Some Sunnis have already spoken in favor of the documents. The vice president, Mr. Yawer, has spoken in favor of the document. The speaker, who's a Sunni, has spoken in favor of the document.

But there are a number of Sunni leaders who have opposed the document. We're hoping and encouraging Iraqis to keep talking to perhaps make additional changes that would make it even more acceptable to more Sunnis, but we will see, and the ultimate, of course, judgment will be made when the referendum takes place on October the 15th.

NEARY: All right. Let's take some calls now. I'm going to go to David in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Good afternoon. First thing is I'd like to say that it seems to me like the political officers and the leaders in Iraq are extremely brave, 'cause they seem to be targets for the insurgency. You know, you stick your neck out just by saying you want to be a leader and you will take responsibility.

The second part to that is it seems like there's a lot of foreign fighters trying to destroy your country. And I don't understand. It doesn't seem like it's any of their business, you know.

NEARY: Let me clarify, first of all, that Ambassador Khalilzad is the US ambassador to Iraq, so he is our ambassador to Iraq.

DAVID: Oh. OK.

NEARY: So you understand that.

DAVID: He's our ambassador.

NEARY: Yes.

DAVID: He is still--the ambassador--the leadership in Iraq is taking great risk just for sticking their necks out.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Sure. Well, of course, you raise a very important point, particularly with regard to the Sunnis, in whose area the insurgency is very active, and many Sunni leaders privately tell me they like the constitution, but publicly, they have been reluctant to embrace it because of that fear. And in order to defeat the insurgency, we need to win over the people away from the insurgency. Part of it is the constitution. Part of it is the election, and I am very encouraged by the registration of voters in the Sunni areas, which shows that people are turning to politics. And also, we need to be able to extend more security to the people in those areas so they can more freely take positions on issues such as the constitution.

And with more Iraqi forces, with coalition forces, perhaps working with some of the locals; again, a very encouraging recent sign has been that some of the local tribes are resisting the foreign terrorists who are coming across the border, in order to provide for more security so that people can express themselves politically. But the Sunnis have to see that they are part of the future and have encouraged the Shiites and the Kurds to be open to their concerns--meaning the concerns of the Sunnis, to give them a role so that they can see themselves in this new picture of Iraq that is emerging. But the issue of terrorism coming from abroad is very important. They are mostly coming from Syria, and our patience is running out with Syria. They must cooperate with the new Iraqi government or they will have to face increased pressure, not only from the Iraqis but from us as well.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, David, and for your question. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, is my guest, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ambassador Khalilzad, you have said Iraq's success is our success. Iraq's failure is our failure. Why do you say that? And the stakes here are really high. Maybe you could talk about that a bit.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Well, the stakes are extremely high. Iraq is a very important country. It has a lot of resources, oil and gas. It also has the right mix in terms of water, land and population. It's got a technically developed population, and so what happens in Iraq is important for those reasons. But also, the struggle in Iraq is not only for Iraq, but it's also part of the broader region, the Middle East, the struggle for the region, and that region obviously is vital to the world. And everyone knows the outcome of the struggle in Iraq will affect the shape of the Middle East and, therefore, people who are opposed to the reform and democratization of the region, they are sending people to Iraq in order to make it difficult for this project of an Iraq that is unified, that's democratic, that is prosperous, that's allied to the responsible nations of the world against extremism and terror, that this project does not succeed or it becomes very difficult for it to succeed.

And this issue of transformation of the Middle East, dealing with terrorism, dealing with Islamic extremism, this is the defining challenge of our time, as containing the Soviet communism was the defining challenge of the previous era, and God forbid, if we were to fail there, you know, given the resources of Iraq, terrorism that could be generated from Iraq would be substantially higher, more dangerous than what we saw under the Taliban in Afghanistan. And those who are opposed to this project in Iraq, the success of Iraq, that are coming from across the border are terrorists. They have a Taliban-style vision for Iraq. And therefore, if we can defeat them in Iraq, if we can help Iraqis succeed in building this new Iraq, this would help in the broader transformation of the Middle East and it will produce peace and prosperity--it would help produce peace and prosperity for generations--future generations in America and around the world. And therefore, I agree strongly that success in Iraq is important for all of us, for the people in the United States, but also for people around the world, and failure there will have a very dramatic, very substantial negative consequences for our security and for security of people around the world.

NEARY: Ambassador, if we could just try and sneak one more call in here. Will in West Point, Georgia, if you can ask your question quickly, Will. We're...

WILL (Caller): Yes, very quickly. Mr. Ambassador, I heard you speaking of US troops moving out of certain regions and Iraqi troops taking over in those regions. Is it possible that this is being called--this is just being a redeployment of American troops in other parts of the country rather than the actual removal of troops from Iraq? And, you know, you speak of the success in Iraq and how it will be a failure for all of us. Well, unfortunately, I think that because we have so many troops abroad, we have the inability to take care of ourselves at home. Look at Hurricane Katrina and all of the problems that we face. We have failures of hundreds of thousands of people...

NEARY: All right. I'm going to let the ambassador answer you, Will, because we don't have too much time left, so...

WILL: Yes, very good. Thank you very much.

NEARY: ...thanks for you question. Ambassador.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Well, of course, the tragedy of Katrina is a terrible tragedy and, of course, we're saddened and the people around the world are saddened as well. But with regard to Iraq, yes, some of our forces that are currently leaving some areas for Iraqis are being redeployed, but in the aftermath of the coming election, there will be--as we reach an agreement with Iraq, as the--depending on the conditions--and my judgment is that the conditions will become more favorable, to begin to both reduce and redeploy and adjust the mission of our armed forces. But for us to do that, of course, we need to continue with training the Iraqi forces. We need to pressure Syria to...

NEARY: Ambassador, I'm afraid I'm going to have to stop you there 'cause we are running out of time. But I appreciate the time you've given us.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Thank you. Thank you very much.

NEARY: Thanks so much.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Thank you. Bye-bye.

NEARY: Zalmay Khalilzad is US ambassador to Iraq.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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