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Laith Kubba Discusses Insurgent Violence, Military Training

June 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, an official Iraqi view of the situation. We get that from Laith Kubba, spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. A Baghdad native, Kubba recently returned to Iraq from an exile in London and Washington. He’s in Washington now with Prime Minister al-Jaafari who met today with Vice President Cheney and others in the administration and on Capitol Hill.

And, Mr. Kubba, welcome. There’s a growing debate in Washington about whether it’s time for the U.S. to establish sometime table of withdrawing from Iraq. Would you be in favor of that? Would your government be in favor of that?

LAITH KUBBA: I think the concept of a timetable is misleading. It should be linked very much to conditions and to performance of the ability of Iraqi institutions, police, to perform and fill the gap.

Otherwise, if there is premature withdrawal, before the Iraqis can run the show properly, then you’re leaving the stage open for terrorist networks who are not simply going to operate in Iraq, but they’re going to make Iraq their base for operations worldwide.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, up till now, the president has said that the benchmark for leaving will be when the Iraqi forces can maintain stability on their own. How long do you think that will be?

LAITH KUBBA: I cannot put a time to it, but I know for sure, there are increasing number of Iraqi police and army soldiers being trained. There are institutions and academies being set up in Iraq today, training them all the time. They are receiving severe blows from terrorists; hundreds of them have been killed in the last year, but there is still very high number of people lining up, queuing up to join the police force.

So, I cannot really tell you when this is going to be. It depends on many factors, not simply about the number of police being trained.

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. commanders in the field have told members of Congress who have been out there in Iraq that it could take up to two years. Why do you think it is taking so much longer to train an effective Iraqi force than the Pentagon originally estimated?

LAITH KUBBA: Training is not the only factor. It’s not simply about putting trained police on — in the field. The political conditions in the country is another factor. Now we have a political process that seems to be successful; hopefully, this is going to reduce the time needed to make the police force effective on the street.

The police — the Iraqi police do not function in abstract. They function in a society. Unless they get the full backing from all elements of society, they cannot perform their jobs. So it’s not simply about training police. It’s also linked to the political process.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the insurgency. Vice President Cheney famously said recently that he thought the insurgency was in its last throes. First of all, when the prime minister met with him today, was the vice president as confident of that in private as he was in public three weeks ago?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I’m not very sure about the background to all this, but I can tell you that the insurgency have lost all the moral and political arguments they used to hide behind.

After the elections, now they’re left exposed out there. And their terrorism has become so random and ill-defined that they’ve lost support from any part of the Iraqi society. In the past they used to hide behind resisting the occupation or being in favor of Sunni participation. Today, both issues are not there.

So, in a way, I think the insurgency have lost on smaller grounds, but they have not lost numbers. They are still out there. They still have networks that are effective, and they get support from outside Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: But they certainly have not lost effectiveness. Gen. (John) Abizaid said today, in fact, they are as strong he thinks as they were six months ago, despite the number killed, despite the number arrested and jailed.

What is your theory about why the insurgency stays as strong? What’s fueling it? How much support do you think it’s actually — must be getting from the local population?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, to start with, I don’t share that assessment. They’re not as strong as they were six months ago. They have lost many of their outside supporters. Inside the country, the insurgency today is split. There are others who have contacted the government to say they never aimed at attacking Iraqis; they were simply resisting the occupation. They know now there is a process to ending the presence of foreign troops, and they want to be part of it.

So in a way, that is a serious split in the insurgency. Those who are left outside have no political agenda. So while they’re still there out in numbers, I simply do not believe they are as strong as they used to be. They have lost sympathy, a lot of sympathy, from circles that used to be quiet about their presence.

Let me just give you a solid example: Many Salafi Wahabi religious leaders came to the prime minister to denounce terrorism and to say we do not want anybody to think we endorse it. We’re just oppose it and support the political process. To me, that is a huge transformation in the politics of the country. Yet, it ought to pay us some dividends in months to come.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the Iraqi political process is another concern on Capitol Hill, judging from what was said today. Will the Iraqi politicians involved in the constitution-writing process meet the Aug. 15 deadline for getting that Constitution drafted?

LAITH KUBBA: I think they will meet the deadline, maybe pending one or two sensitive issues to do with Kurdish federalism in the country. I think this is only the most serious stumbling block.

It seems to me the way the process can move ahead is to at least sign on all the items in the constitution that are not disputed, and simply postpone the elements that are disputed, put a mechanism, a procedure to go back and visit it in the future.

Constitutions evolve; they’re not born perfect from day one. And I think Iraq is no exception. The process can meet the deadline, but it will not be complete. I think they have to postpone some elements to be resolved later in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: One leading Democratic senator, the ranking Democrat (Carl Levin) on the Armed Services Committee, has suggested that the president should essentially tell the Iraqi political figures working on this, that unless it meets some deadline for getting the constitution done — not necessarily Aug. 15, but a date certain — that the U.S. will consider a timetable for withdrawal.

In other words, what he said was he thought — he considers President Bush’s open-ended commitment to stay — quote, unquote — as long as it takes, had removed pressure or incentive for Iraqi political figures from different ethnic groups to resolve their differences. Do you think that would be helpful or harmful?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I don’t share that point of view, and I think it is going to be extremely harmful. There are networks out there who will see this as a victory and this is going to boost their morale and strengthen their operations. So I don’t share that view, and I don’t share the assessment that Iraqis need to be pressured to reach that agreement.

Iraq needs that agreement desperately. People in Iraq are not satisfied with the way things are in the country. They want to move on, lay the foundation for a permanent peace that society can then build on and build a strong state. So I think the Iraqis have the incentive. They don’t need that extra pressure from the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: By this question I don’t – what’s about to come I don’t mean to suggest that I think the president is about to withdraw troops or set a timetable, but as a senior member of your government, if the United States were to do that, were to set a timetable in the near term for withdrawing, what would be the effect on your government and on the situation in Iraq?

LAITH KUBBA: That would set up a different dynamic than we have currently. What we have at the moment is an attempt to build up the capacity of the police and the army as quickly as possible.

If there was to be an impression that there is going to be a vacuum, that the foreign troops will pull out of the country before these forces are complete, you will find an increased draw for militias who would be ready to fill that vacuum, and you cannot run a country or have a stable country, a modern country, based on militias. So that is going to send the country on a very bad track.

MARGARET WARNER: In either your meetings and the prime minister’s meetings on Capitol Hill, since you’ve been here, or within the administration, did you detect a level of anxiety, though, about waning public support here in the states for the war effort?

LAITH KUBBA: I’m aware it’s an issue here in the U.S. My only message is to say after two years of sweating, of sacrifices, of all the blood, all the money that was spent on Iraq, does it make sense to pull out without securing a country and seeing its results?

I can understand the impatience, and I understand the need to have a clear vision on how to tackle it, but I totally cannot understand the logic of simply one is tired out of an assignment that took so much blood and energy and money, then just to leave it halfway there just because one is tired. It just doesn’t make sense.

MARGARET WARNER: Laith Kubba, spokesman for the Iraqi government, thanks so much.

LAITH KUBBA: Thank you.