Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is "is trying his very best to be a national, and not a sectarian, leader," says Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
The diplomat also tells Melissa Block that he is optimistic that new changes to Iraq's oil and de-Baathification policies could soon become law.
Text of the Negroponte interview is below:
JOHN NEGROPONTE: (In progress) – I've always thought of the political process in Iraq as unfolding in a period of months and years, not in a period of days and weeks. And if you look at where we started in 2003, and where we are now, I think there has been quite a bit of positive political evolution from an interim government to a transitional government, and now to a permanent government. So that would be one point.
The other point that I would make is that there has been progress, for example on hydrocarbons legislation. And work is being done on de-Ba'athification legislation. So I think what we could say is that politicians in Iraq are making a serious effort to come to grips with the difficult issues that confront them.
MELISSA BLOCK: Let me follow up on both of those issues.
MR. NEGROPONTE: Sure.
MS. BLOCK: The law that would distribute oil revenues among Iraqis, the hydrocarbons legislation you're talking about, that still hasn't been put before parliament.
MR. NEGROPONTE: That is correct, but it has gotten through the government itself. And as you know, the government of Iraq is representative of, and contains elements from, all of the diverse elements of their political spectrum. So it was a very important step to reach agreement and consensus within the cabinet. Now it remains to be submitted to their legislature for action, and we hope that that will take place sometime fairly soon.
MS. BLOCK: And with the sectarian divisions so entrenched in the legislature, do you really think that bill will get some movement?
MR. NEGROPONTE: Well, I think one can hope that the same considerations and the same dynamic that resulted in these politicians reaching agreement at the level of the cabinet, one could hope that that same kind of dynamic could reflect itself in the legislature.
MS. BLOCK: You also mentioned the plan to reintegrate former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, people who are purged from government service, but you now have the powerful Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rejecting that plan outright.
MR. NEGROPONTE: Well, I don't know if that is the last word on that subject. I'm not sure that he has made any pronouncement directly on it, unless there is some development that I haven't heard of most recently, but that is a much debated issue in Iraq, but I think there is agreement that it was a mistake to collectively ban all former Ba'ath Party members from positions in public life, since membership in the Ba'ath Party under the regime of Saddam Hussein had been virtually obligatory.
So it's a question of degree, level of involvement, how high ranking these individuals were. And the other was the question of the collected – collective versus individual responsibility. And I believe there is a growing feeling that it is those who were really personally responsible for carrying out objectionable acts who should be punished, and not the class of people belonging to the Ba'ath Party at large.
MS. BLOCK: There are many people who say that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a big part of the sectarian problem in Iraq. He is a Shiite; he has close ties to Shiite militias, and a lot of people say he has no interest in reconciling with the Sunnis. What do you think?
MR. NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, his own political party, to my knowledge, the party from which he came does not have any militia of its own, but it is true that he is a Shi'a; he's a Shi'a politician, and, but I believe that that fact is reflective of the fact that Iraq as a whole has a majority Shi'a population. So I don't think that it's unusual that a Shi'a politician should become the prime minister of the country. And it is true that he has strong ties to leaders of the Islamist – Islamic faith, but I do believe that he is trying his very best to be a national, and not a sectarian, leader.
MS. BLOCK: I would like to move on to Iran and the 15 British service members who are being held captive there. Do you see any indications that this crisis is moving toward a diplomatic resolution?
MR. NEGROPONTE: Well, I would certainly hope so, and I think that it is urgent that it be resolved as quickly as possible. And I would urge the Iranian authorities to do whatever they can to see their way to releasing these soldiers and sailors as soon as possible.
MS. BLOCK: What do you think the capture of these British servicemen tells you about Iran's government and the possibilities of dealing with them on the nuclear issue?
MR. NEGROPONTE: I think it would be premature to try to draw some hard-and-fast conclusion about that. I would also say that we don't see these issues related in any way, and we certainly wouldn't want to treat them as being related with each other. The nuclear question is on diplomatic track before the Security Council. We expect and hope that the government of Iran will see its way to suspending its enrichment activities. It hasn't done so, so far, and there are have been two U.N. security resolutions – Security Council resolutions calling upon it to do so. But — I think we see that as a completely separate issue.
MS. BLOCK: Completely separate. It's hard to see how those could not be intertwined in some way, how the nuclear issue could move forward when these captives are being held.
MR. NEGROPONTE: Well, someone could try to entangle them if they wish. What I am saying, though, is that we do not – our approach is to not treat them as related, and that we still pursue or seek a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear question on a completely separate track.
MS. BLOCK: John Negroponte, thanks for being with us.
MR. NEGROPONTE: Thank you.
Transcript by: Federal News Service Washington, D.C.