ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch runs the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.
Welcome to the program, Mr. Welch.
Mr. DAVID WELCH (Assistant Secretary of State): Hi. How are you?
SIEGEL: I'm going to ask you first about Iraq and also a bit about what's happened in Gaza, now the West Bank over the past few days. First, the head of Iraq's constitutional drafting committee said today that over three days, they're just not going to get Sunni Muslim approval, so the constitution there will have to be approved by parliament over Sunni objections and go to a referendum. Are you concerned that the constitution could be defeated in that referendum?
Mr. WELCH: Well, let's look at where we are right now. I mean, I think the Iraqis have taken a big step forward with the draft that they're looking at now. They have, on most of the issues that have been debated for some time now, a consensus, or at least they're somewhat near a consensus. But they want to take a few more days--three days to be precise--to see if they can solidify that--what consensus they have and build more of a consensus on all the issues that the constitution addresses. So I would say, you know, we think this is a good move forward, we respect their desire to see if they can take a little bit more time to strengthen that consensus and, you know, with some determination on their part and goodwill on the part of those represented in this discussion, they should be able to do that.
SIEGEL: However, it would only take the majority of three provinces in Iraq to defeat the constitution in a referendum. That means you have to have pretty broad support for that document coming out of the assembly, no?
Mr. WELCH: Well--and I think that argues for those who've said, `Well, let's take a little bit of additional time, see if we can firm this up a little bit.' That's a protection for the rights of minorities, in a sense, who would see that, you know, if they don't get their needs addressed, they have a chance to go back to go. We don't think it'll come to that 'cause they're still in this process.
SIEGEL: Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni politician and former Iraqi foreign minister, said today the main issue is federalism, and he spoke of federal structures outside Kurdistan. What is the US position on a southern majority Shiite province as autonomous of Baghdad and the central Iraqi government as the Kurdish north would be? Is that something that the US could tolerate, prefers, would rather not see? How would you describe the US view of that?
Mr. WELCH: Well, it's important to understand the US--while we may have views on any of the issues under discussion here, these are issues for Iraqis to decide. I think there's broad agreement in their discussions so far on the principle of federalism, and that's probably most solid with respect to the northern ...(unintelligible) of Iraq and the Kurdish areas of Iraq. But with regard to the other parts of Iraq, my understanding is that they haven't really gotten a broad agreement on that.
SIEGEL: Broad agreement? There are Sunnis saying, `This will be civil war if you have an autonomous Shiite province in the south,' a federal province.
Mr. WELCH: Well, you know, one has to be careful about picking up any statement from any Iraqi politician at any given time and describing that as capturing the whole entire state of things. This is a negotiation. There's a lot of bargaining going on. There's a--these are tough and emotional issues, and I'm not surprised there are very strong statements made about it. But let's see where they get in these coming days.
SIEGEL: You were just in Gaza and were there during the Israeli disengagement. What must Israel do right now? Is Israel obliged to withdraw from further settlements on the West Bank, or may they now wait to see how the Palestinians react to what's happened so far?
Mr. WELCH: As I understand it, the evacuation of settlers from these areas, Gaza and the northern West Bank settlements, has been accomplished today. That being the case, what remains now is Israeli military forces, who are in Gaza, to demolish the settler houses, and when that's over, then they will be withdrawing. That process has been under way now, and we're happy that--and encouraged that it has occurred relatively peaceably. We want to turn this opportunity into reality for both sides, and that's the purpose of our diplomacy. We think that contributing to this process in a successful way will also help throughout the region, too.
SIEGEL: How far are the Palestinians from gaining central control over all of the armed forces in Gaza?
Mr. WELCH: They have a lot of work to do, and there are even breakaway forces from the main Fatah organization that still have weapons and the ability to stir things up. And they're making progress, but I would be less than honest if I told you that they're there. I believe their intention is good, but we have to see actions on the ground to substantiate that.
SIEGEL: Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
Mr. WELCH: Not at all. My pleasure.
SIEGEL: David Welch spoke to us from the State Department, where he runs the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
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