Iraq Ambassador Admits 'Potential' for Civil War

The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, admits he sees "potential" for the sectarian violence in the country to explode into civil war. Noah Adams talks with Borzou Daragahi, Baghdad bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, about the remarks and the consequences to U.S. forces if civil war breaks out.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Madeleine Brand is out today. I'm Noah Adams. Coming up, a terrorism-related trial in California's Central Valley raises questions in the local Muslim community. But first, our top story.

Iraq, today, is a country on the verge of civil war. The governing Shiite Alliance is asking for a delay to the opening of Parliament, saying it wants more time to break a deadlock over forming a coalition. March 12th is the constitutional day for parliament to get underway. There were also videos released today, showing three of four Christian peace activists who have been held hostage since November. The fourth, an American, is absent from that video.

And, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Los Angeles Times yesterday, that if the U.S. leaves too soon, Iraq could be thrown into an all-out civil war. Borzou Daragahi is acting Baghdad bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, and joins us now. Mr. Daragahi, there's been a lot of talk about where Iraq is headed. The U.S. Ambassador is very plain, very explicit, talking about an all-out war?

Mr. BORZOU DARAGAHI (Acting Baghdad bureau chief, The Los Angeles Times): Yeah, I mean, he was very frank, unusually so, for a U.S. official, and very bleak in terms of his assessment of where Iraq is, and the level of danger there is out there. He was trying to explain that if the U.S. would do what it's done in other past situations, such as in Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where civil war broke out, and the U.S. decided to leave, it would leave behind a seriously unstable situation that could draw the whole region into an all-out civil war. Into an all-out real, hot war.

ADAMS: We could assume he is talking with the blessing of Washington, the State Department and the White House, but how does it conflict if at all with what the U.S. Military has been saying?

Mr. DARAGAHI: Well, the U.S. Military has, ever since the February 22 bombing of the shrine in Somarra and the subsequent outbreak of Sectarian reprisals, the U.S. Military has been very optimistic and rosy about the situation here in Iraq. And, basically, trying to downplay the level of violence, saying that it was exaggerated, and so on. But the ambassador was quite adamant that there was no exaggeration, in terms of how close the country was to the brink of civil war, and how good it was that it had drawn back, and what an opportunity this particular time presented, and what a critical time it is now, in terms of what he describes, forging a unity government that gives all of Iraq's despaired groups some kind of shared sense of purpose, as well as a stake in the system.

ADAMS: Could this be positioning, in a way, for affecting the planned troop reduction level that was coming up in 2006, do you think?

Mr. DARAGAHI: Yeah, I think that it's possible. I'm sure that this will be a part of the debate, as they begin discussions, as early as this week in Washington, about whether to, and how much to withdraw troops. I think that one potential consequence of a withdrawal, in terms of how it will be perceived by Iraqis, is that, for example, the Sunnis will say, look, the Americans are going to leave. They're going to leave us here. We're going to be attacked by the Shiites who control much of the security apparatus. We better start organizing ourselves into militias.

ADAMS: And finally, what are your thoughts about the fact that the American peace activist wasn't seen in that video? Three of the four were, but not the American?

Mr. DARAGAHI: You know, I could only speculate. It could perhaps be part of a negotiating tactic--trying to, basically, say that we have control over these people. We can decide whether they live or die, so you better meet our demands. But that's only speculation. There's very little information, very little solid information about what has happened to these hostages, as well as the American journalist Jill Carroll.

ADAMS: Borzou Daragahi from the Los Angeles Times, speaking with us from Baghdad. Thank you.

Mr. DARAGAHI: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

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