A Conversation with Iraq Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has acted as a liaison among sectarian interests to help forge a unity government. He talks about Iraq's newly designated prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki of the Dawa Party, and other issues.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

One of the bloodiest months in Iraq is drawing to a close. At least 69 U.S. soldiers and scores more Iraqis have died. One Iraqi minister today claimed that as many as 100,000 families have been displaced so far by sectarian and insurgent fighting.

Iraq's newly designated prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is now in a race to form a government. What happens over the thousand cups of tea that he and political leaders drink in their daily deliberations is a story that outsiders have yet to understand fully. That's where the future of Iraq may be being shaped and where the faces of new government may soon emerge.

Zalmay Khalilzad is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He has acted as a liaison between the parties and among sectarian interests there to help forge a unity government. Mr. Khalilzad joins us from Baghdad. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it's very nice to be with you, Mr. Simon.

SIMON: What can you tell you about Nouri al-Maliki, the newly designated prime minister?

KHALILZAD: Well, he is a political leader of long standing in Iraq. He was opposed to Saddam Hussein and was a member of an Islamic party called the Dawa party, which was outlawed by Saddam in 1980. And he was condemned to death, sentenced to death in abstentia and he went to Iran, and from there he went to Syria because in Iran, during the Iran/Iraq war, the Iranians tried to get him to fight for the Iranian side against the Iraqis and he refused to do that.

And in the aftermath of the overthrow of the regime, he came back. He has been active as a member of parliament. One of the messages that he has sent since being nominated is that Iraq would like to have good relations with all of its neighbors but this will have to be based on non-interference and mutual respect. So he is good for Iraq and in terms of Iraq's relations with the Arab world in particular.

SIMON: He has 30 days to form a government. He says that he can do it within two weeks. Based on all your diplomatic experience, do you think it's wise to set that kind of self-imposed deadline?

KHALILZAD: It's good to have deadlines but I think he's perhaps being optimistic. I think it will be tough for him to do it but we will do what we can to help him.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, according to reports we've read, you make a point of trying to represent Sunni positions in your mediation efforts with the Shia to make certain that Sunni's are represented in Iraq's new government. Do you think this casts you in a certain role when it comes to sitting down at the table with Shiite politicians and leaders?

KHALILZAD: Sometimes when I have spoken in militias on the past or have spoken on the abuses by the Ministry of Interior or elements in the Ministry of Interior, and that has to be dealt with, some groups, particularly Shiite religious groups, have reacted negatively. But I am very encouraged that some of the points that I used to make are exactly the points made now by Mr. Maliki and Ayatollah Histani.

I have good relations with all of them. But at times discussions get heated and I press hard. Clearly there is negative reactions to what I have said or what I have done.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, what can set off a heated conversation?

KHALILZAD: Well, the issue, for example, that I can give you, a current example of the minister of Interior of Defense being someone who's broadly acceptable without ties to militia, a unifier, this could lead to a very heated discussion because a particular party believes that it is entitled to have that Ministry filled by a Minister of its choice, regardless. If the Minister selected is someone that's regarded to be sectarian, then the whole institution will be not trusted by the entire community.

So we can have very interesting and protracted discussions on issues such as the one I just described.

SIMON: Are you seen as an American or a Sunni?

KHALILZAD: I'm seen as an American, as the American ambassador, but sometimes when they find some of what I say not to their liking, they do charge me with other things. I have intentionally sometimes sought to get their attention by stating things in a very forceful and direct way. But that's my general style. I used to do the same in Afghanistan because I think it's very important for people to know where we stand and what we see as the kind of government of national unity that we defined weeks and months ago as the appropriate responses to the current situation in Iraq have become and the position of all the major political forces in Iraq.

SIMON: May I ask, how forceful were you in expressing yourself about Mr. Jaffrey?

KHALILZAD: Well, of course I've had personally a good relationship with Mr. Jaffrey and I continue to do that, but he was nominated by the biggest block but he was rejected by others, and I emphasized that Iraq needed a prime minister that could unify. Because what was needed was a government of national unity. But I also told them that the United States did not have a candidate of its own, that it wanted to impose the choice; it had to be made by Iraqis.

SIMON: How would you assess the state of Iraq's police and security forces now, sir?

KHALILZAD: We have declared this year as the year of the police. The basic problem is that there is not still enough of them around the country and there are some provinces in which there aren't hardly any police forces. In Anbar, for example, a western province, there is no police forces to speak of. So we need more of them, we need them well led, we need a strong minister that all committees have confidence in. Police forces, according to the constitution, have to be local, and there are however national forces as well. So the challenge is the national forces are trusted overall throughout the country, but local polices have to be generated at the local level, should be easier to get the trust of the local community with regard to those.

SIMON: You're known for marathon negotiating sessions.

KHALILZAD: Right.

SIMON: What are you hoping to do by keeping, do you keep, may I ask, do you keep people in the same room? Do you keep them in separate rooms?

KHALILZAD: All of the above, and what I, my style is that I can drink as much tea or coffee as anyone and I'm available at any time. And there is no problem for which we cannot find the solution if there is good will and a willingness to sit down and persisting to make progress. And you know, we are a very impatient people as you know. We would like to get things done instantaneously or faster, and here the concept of time is not the same. And I remember from Afghanistan, when dealing with the Taliban, they used to say, while we had all the watches, they had all the time. And I've been telling Washington and the Americans that this is the defining challenge of our time. We have got to succeed, but we have to understand how difficult and complicated the issues are and that we need to be patient as well.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for having a cup of tea with us.

KHALILZAD: Well, thank you.

SIMON: The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking from Baghdad.

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