U.S. Ambassador Comments on New Iraq Government
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Iraq passed a milestone over the weekend. Five months after an election, Iraqi leaders agreed on a new cabinet. They did that by putting off the most critical choices. The Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held off naming a defense minister to oversee Iraq's army. He also held off naming an interior minister to oversee the police. The question is whether this milestone, unlike so many others, will improve Iraq's security.
This morning, we have reached U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad. He says the new prime minister is already at work.
Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (U.S. Ambassador, Iraq): He's asked for a plan for security for Baghdad to be reviewed on Thursday, so he's got a good start.
INSKEEP: Plan for security for Baghdad, which is significant because hundreds of people are being killed every week in the city where you are.
Ambassador KHALILZAD: Exactly. I think sectarian violence is the most serious challenge that the new government faces. As you know, the terrorists want to provoke a sectarian war, and containing that and securing Baghdad is the single most important thing that the government needs to focus on.
INSKEEP: Well, do you think that there really will be defense and interior ministers within a few days, as the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised?
Ambassador KHALILZAD: He told me yesterday, when I met him, that he's narrowed the list to a few candidates. You know, that for the Iraqis to have confidence in their security forces, those forces have to be lead by people who are regarded to be nonsectarian, competent, strong people. And they just couldn't agree to it a few days ago, when the rest of the cabinet was decided. But I believe that within the next five to six days, there will be a decision to fill those posts.
INSKEEP: But it seems that you still have demands for sectarian control of those two critical ministries, Ambassador. Even in this moment when the ministers haven't been named, they're temporarily being held by the prime minister and his deputy. A Shiite Muslim will keep control of the interior ministry, which is police forces and so forth, and a Sunni gets defense. It's still divided along those lines, even temporarily.
Ambassador KHALILZAD: But the key positive change is that those two people will not be from specific political parties, and that they will be broadly accepted, nonpartisan people. That's why it's taking a little longer to make sure that the people who are selected are genuinely independent of ties to militias. And I believe that's the right thing to do.
INSKEEP: Does everyone in this unity government actually agree on what to do about the insurgents who've been battling for years now?
Ambassador KHALILZAD: With the participation of the Sunni Arabs in the political process, which is a major setback to the terrorists, who did not want the Sunnis to participate in the political process, the next phase has got to be to engage the insurgents, to include them in the political process. This will take time, but with the engagement of the insurgents, the violence that has been affecting Iraq should diminish.
INSKEEP: Although, will it be hard to go all out against insurgents on the battlefield, because you now have people in the government who are sympathetic to their cause?
Ambassador KHALILZAD: Those who attack Iraqi institutions or Iraqi people, there is agreement that they will have to be fought against. People need to be protected. But along with security measures to protect people, now there is an opportunity also to engage, to reconcile, to come to an agreement. And the people who are in the government, who come from the same community that many of the insurgents come from, can be a bridge that can facilitate the negotiations and agreement.
INSKEEP: Didn't one Sunni political leader say last week that insurgents should actually keep fighting, because ending the fighting should be part of the political settlement? You had someone in the government now, part of the government, that supports the use of violence as a political tool.
Ambassador KHALILZAD: I talked with him - this is Mr. Hashemi was quoted as having said that; he said that's not what he meant. What he meant was not fighting, but that the resistance, as a concept, should come to an end as part of an agreement. I believe...
INSKEEP: But what if you could - forgive me, what's the difference between fighting and resistance?
Ambassador KHALILZAD: From Mr. Hashemi's perspective, there is a need for an agreement on what happens to the people who are or who have been part of the so-called resistance. We believe, and I believe that is the position of the Iraqi government, that with the formation of this unity government, that it cannot be a legitimate resistance against this government.
INSKEEP: Zalmay Khalilzad is ambassador to Iraq. Ambassador, thanks very much.
Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, thank you.
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