Ambassador to Iraq Weighs Country's Future

Zalmay Khalilzad with Iraq's president i i

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (left) escorts U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to a meeting of various Iraqi leaders in Baghdad March 15, 2006. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters
Zalmay Khalilzad with Iraq's president

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (left) escorts U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to a meeting of various Iraqi leaders in Baghdad March 15, 2006.

Reuters

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad talks with Robert Siegel about the deepening sectarian violence in the country and the prospect of a government of national unity there.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us from Baghdad is U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Ambassador Khalilzad, welcome to the program.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (U.S. ambassador to Iraq): Well, it's great to be with you.

SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you about the violence in Iraq, and, as an example, this is something that Americans might've read on the front page of the New York Times today. Thirty bodies turned up in Sadr City on Monday. Sadr City militia members hanged four men from lampposts. This is what I want to ask you about. The writer wrote, "The widespread suspicion is that many executions are the handiwork of death squads backed by the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry. On the other side are well-organized Sunni insurgents, quite skilled at killing, too." Does that describe things to you pretty well?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, yes, there has been, of course, an increase in the killing in the last three to four days of individuals. There is a suspicion that militias and insurgents are involved, but we do not have specific information as to which particular insurgent group or which element of the militias have been involved, although there is a suspicion with regard to the Jaish-i-Mahdi, the militia associated with the Sadr group.

SIEGEL: The Mahdi army, we would say here.

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Exactly.

SIEGEL: What is the role of U.S. forces, if indeed sectarian violence persists? Are they referees? Are they on the side of government security troops, which may be far more Shiite than Sunni? Do they go back to base and try to stay out of this thing?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, of course, our goal, together with the Iraqi government and Iraqi leaders, is to do all that can be done to prevent increased violence along sectarian lines, and, when needed, working with the Iraqi forces to stabilize a situation and prevent attacks.

SIEGEL: You recently suggested publicly that the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Jaafari, is not the man for the job now, and you've been urging the Iraqis to include Sunni Muslims in a government of national unity. Why shouldn't a Shiite Iraqi feel that you and the U.S. are rewarding Sunnis for their prior intransigence and possibly even ignoring their past support for Saddam Hussein?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, we want, of course, a government of national unity because the problem that Iraq faces right now is the threat of sectarianism that the terrorists are trying to both promote and exploit, the terrorists who want to see a sectarian civil war. And the right answer to that is to bring a government of national unity, separate the Sunni population from the terrorists, and bringing them into the government proportional to how well they did in the last election. This is what the Shiites also say they want, but there is, of course, the issue of who should be the Prime Minister and who should be interior and defense ministers. We have said that the defense and interior and intelligence people ought to be those that have broad support so that the institution is built in a way that has the confidence of all Iraqis. Otherwise, it simply will not work and will play into the hands of the terrorists and insurgents.

SIEGEL: Well, from all that we read here about your efforts, you are a very active, tough salesman, but it's a very hard sell, is the impression we get here.

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Of course, the Iraqis are going through a difficult period, and there is a loss of confidence between the various communities. And so to bring them together to accept compromises that are necessary to be made is not easy. But I'm encouraged that increasingly they recognize that their country is bleeding and that they must come together and in the last two to three days there have been very positive and encouraging talks, very frank talks, direct talks. So there is progress, but still, very difficult days are ahead in terms of decisions with Iraq to who will be Prime Minister and who will be the key ministers in the new government.

SEIGEL: You assume, though, it'll be a different Prime Minister? Have you heard that much progress?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, that is the attitude of some key players in Baghdad. But I don't want to pronounce myself on this issue. It's up to the Iraqi's to decide who their Prime Minister will be.

SIEGEL: But you're hearing from key players whom you've been consulting with that they're taking on your point that Prime Minister Jafari is perhaps not the right guy to be running the government at this point?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: I think there is broad opposition to him in Iraq, but some forces continue to support them. And I believe that the judgment ultimately will be made whether he can unify Iraq and whether he has the record in terms of what he has done that can be an effective Prime Minister in terms of dealing with the problems that Iraq faces.

SIEGEL: Realistically, how many months or years away do you think Iraq is from a situation in which there is a trusted national security force, so much so that a local militia cannot hang people from lampposts in Sadr City, but rather the government is the law and the power behind the law? How far away are we from that situation?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Oh, I think we are some distance from that, but the key issue now, and one that will have a determining factor on the future of the country, is the formation of this government. If the Iraqis get the right government, a government of national unity, with professional, broadly acceptable people running security institutions, a very, very important step would be taken in the right direction.

SIEGEL: But you seem to be, though, in a race against time here. That at some point, I mean, people need protection in their cities. They have to have security. How long do you have before people feel the government stands for that?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: I think that we're talking about weeks before such a government is formed, but it is so important since this will shape the next four years of Iraq, that it is the right government and that key institutions are in the hands of people who are both competent and are broadly trusted.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, for Parliament's first meeting, there has been declared a no- car day in Iraq. That is in order for Parliament to meet in security, nobody's driving in the city. If that's a measure of how secure things are in the capital, it sounds that it's pretty perilous still.

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Baghdad in particular has been the scene of the most violence in the last several days, and therefore the government has decided since the terrorists use cars for exploding in populated areas to ban the driving of cars tomorrow. And they're likely to do that also on the 40th day of Assura. It has proven to be a positive step in terms of reducing violence when they have done that, so they are planning to do that tomorrow.

SIEGEL: Well Ambassador Khalilzad, thank you very much for talking with us. I hope you'll be back on the program soon.

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well it's great to be with you.

SIEGEL: That's Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, speaking to us from Baghdad.

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