Exiting Iraq: Ambassador Galbraith's View

Peter Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia and author of The End of Iraq, joins a series of conversations on the U.S. end game in Iraq. Galbraith finds it inevitable that Iraq will divide into three regions: Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and says U.S. authorities should accept that.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, where to get chicken nuggets, onion rings and cheesecake in the middle of a war. But first, Peter Galbraith has been writing about Iraq since the 1980s as a journalist and on staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a political advisor to the Kurds of Iraq. He was also the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia. In his new book, The End of Iraq, he argues that the nation was held together only by the brutal repression of Saddam Hussein and that the United States should accept what he considers to be obvious, the division of Iraq into three separate ethnic states. Peter Galbraith joins us in our studio for another one of our conversations in how the U.S. may leave Iraq.

Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PETER GALBRAITH (Former U.S. Ambassador) Very good to be with you.

SIMON: And what is the Iraq, or the nations that used to be Iraq, that you envision?

Mr. GALBRAITH: Well, the first and most obvious new nation is Kurdistan. It already has its own government, its own elected parliament, flies its own flag, has its own army. Central government ministries are not present there. By Kurdistan law, the Iraqi army is banned from going there, and the Iraqi flag is also banned. So in every regard except having a seat at the United Nations, it is already an independent state. It is, in fact, the Iraq that the United States hoped all the country would be. It is stable, increasingly prosperous, it is secular and aspires to be democratic.

SIMON: There are a lot of people who point out that's fine for Kurdistan, but what about the rest of the country?

Mr. GALBRAITH: Right now there's a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites, in essence for control of the Arab part of Iraq. But there is a movement among the Shiites to set up a Shiite super-region in the south with the same powers that the Kurdistan region has in the north. And that is allowed under Iraq's constitution, which gives almost all the power to the regions when they're created and virtually none is left in the center.

SIMON: And the Sunnis?

Mr. GALBRAITH: And the Sunnis. So far their position has been that they don't want federalism at all, because they see that as leading to the break-up of Iraq, although they have now accepted Kurdistan's separation. But the reality is that they are 20 percent of Iraq and there's no way that they are going to come back to power, so it is in their interest to have their own region and it also makes much more sense in terms of providing security. What we have now is what we call an Iraqi army, but in essence is really Shiite battalions that are fighting against Sunni insurgents. We think of them as Iraqi, but the Sunnis don't think of them as Iraqi, they think of them as loyal to this Shiite dominated government in Baghdad installed by the Americans and closely allied with national enemy number one, which is Iran.

SIMON: How would you divide the country when in fact, as you know, in a place like Baghdad all three ethnic groups and others have been living together for decades?

Mr. GALBRAITH: The real problem is Baghdad. It is divided between Sunnis and Shiites, maybe 60 percent Shiite, 35 percent Sunni, with other minorities, Kurds, Christians and some other groups filling up the rest. It is, therefore, the battleground of this ghastly civil war, and the city is now largely divided, more or less by Tigress River, not entirely, into a Shiite East and a Sunni West.

SIMON: So your argument would be that it's - de facto it's become divided along those lines?

Mr. GALBRAITH: Yes, again, I'm not advocating the partition of Iraq and I'm certainly not advocating the kind of secular cleansing that is taking place in Baghdad. I'm saying this has already happened, and we are doing nothing to unify Iraq and we're doing nothing to stop or contain the civil war.

SIMON: As we mentioned, you've been an outspoken advocate for the Kurds, and years ago criticized Saddam Hussein for genocidal policies. How did you feel about the war in Iraq?

Mr. GALBRAITH: I went along with it. I didn't believe that Iraqi WMD was a threat. I think it was obvious that Iraq did not have the one WMD that we really have to worry about above all others, and that's nuclear weapons and it wasn't even remotely close to acquiring it. But I did feel the people of Iraq, who are 80 percent Kurds or Shiites, deserve something different. I thought the war likely would lead to the break-up of the country, but I wish I'd been more skeptical.

I saw the incompetence. I saw the lack of planning at the Pentagon even before the war. But I never grasped that we would actually enter Baghdad with no plan to provide security in that city, and I was there four days after the city fell. I never imagined that we would send - instead of sending qualified professionals to run the occupation government, that this would be a place for true believers and young Republicans to earn large salaries and play at nation-building and accomplish nothing. And so I didn't think we would be in this ghastly situation.

But we are where we are, and now it is in the national security interest of the United States to get out because as long as we're there, we are not addressing the more serious threats to our national security, including from - in Iran, that's going full speed ahead toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

SIMON: What about the concern that some people would have that a Shiite republic growing out of Iraq would become essentially an Iranian satellite?

Mr. GALBRAITH: It is already an Iranian satellite. The name of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, does give a clue as to its political agenda. The idea of a Shiite region is something that limits the Iranian influence to the south.

SIMON: If the United States and United Kingdom were to take your advice, what step by step would happen?

Mr. GALBRAITH: Well, the first thing would happen is that we would remove the troops from southern Iraq, I would say tomorrow. I mean, as quickly as we can get them out, and let the Shiites run that region. We should provide assistance. It would be much better if we could have actually a region formally created rather than this ad hoc system where different political parties and different militias rule, and certainly a certain in Basra where competing militias fight over oil smuggling.

I would also move out of Baghdad, maybe not the Green Zone, which may continue to need to be secured, and I would be moving to encourage the Sunni Arabs to form their own region, although frankly that's a decision that they have to make. And then I would pull out of the Sunni region, to Kurdistan, because the Kurdistan army would be an ally, to see how things develop.

But all this has to preceded by recognition on the part of the administration of the reality of Iraq, that the country is broken up and that there is a civil war. Because right now we have a mission of building a unified and democratic Iraq that cannot possibly be accomplished by the resources that we have in that country.

And of course the administration understands that, but they're reluctant to admit that there's a civil war because that would be a public admission of failure, it would be a public admission that we cannot accomplish that mission. But we know that in 2009, the next president, whether it's John McCain, Hillary Clinton or somebody else, is going to withdraw. So there's really no purpose continuing a policy that cannot succeed at such great cost to us, and frankly for Iraq.

SIMON: Ambassador, thank you.

Mr. GALBRAITH: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Peter Galbraith is the author of the new book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created A War Without End.

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