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Ambassador John Negroponte Discusses Iraqi Election Results

January 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Amb. Negroponte, welcome, and thanks for being with us.

We have heard roughly that there was a 60 percent turnout. What is the latest you can tell us or what more do you know about the ethnic breakdown of the turnout, ethnic and religious?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: I think it’s very difficult to say at this time. The Independent Iraqi Electoral Commission has even pulled back a bit from giving out any estimates, and I think we’re going to have to wait for the next day or two before we get some reliable turnout figures.

But clearly there’s going to be important representation from the Kurdish areas, from the Shiia groups, from the non-sectarian parties based here in Baghdad, and probably slightly lesser representation in terms of the proportions on the part of the Sunni people living in the so-called Sunni Triangle area.

MARGARET WARNER: And give us your sense of how soon, just in practical terms, we’ll actually see this transitional national assembly sit down to meet?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, of course, this is the first time that all this is happening, so none of us have much of an experience base to refer back to, but the results are supposed to be known in the next seven or ten days; I think then there’s allowance for perhaps challenges and so forth, so let’s assume a couple of weeks until the results are finally certified.

And then it will take some time for the new assembly to organize itself and its first act will be to pick a new presidency, which it will have to select by a two-thirds vote, so that could take several weeks time.

MARGARET WARNER: Now of course an overriding issue is how to get the Sunnis to participate in this political process that’s about to unfold. How do you think that is going to go?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, first it is an important issue. I wouldn’t call it “the” overriding issue, by any means. I think the overriding issue is to move the democratic process in this country forward and yesterday was a major advance in that direction.

Now, as far as the involvement of Sunni or any other groups, what we’ve heard from the political leaders who are candidates in this election is that they want to take an inclusive approach towards the future political life of this country.

So, I think you’re going to see efforts to involve the Sunni in the new executive branch, through cabinet positions and the like, and I think there is also the intention to try and involve them in various ways in the drafting of a new constitution.

Because under the interim constitution of Iraq, any combination of three provinces at the time of the referendum on the constitution can block ratification. So, it’s very much in the interest of all concerned if only to get the constitution ratified to include representation from all groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you personally in touch with senior members of what’s been called the Sistani Slate, even though we know he was neither a candidate nor officially endorsed, but the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite-dominated slate, that is expected to get the greatest number of votes. I mean, do you have a personal reading of what their intentions are?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, we at various levels in our embassy, right down to our political reporting officers we have maintained contact with all segments of the Iraqi political spectrum and of course some of the members of the Sistani List are people who are either in the government – such as the finance minister, for example, or the vice president — and others are individuals whom we knew when there was a – a governing council at the time of the coalition provisional authority, so I would say that we’re quite well acquainted with representatives of that list and in fairly constant dialogue with them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now what about the Sunni leaders who urged a boycott? They have at least given interviews in which they said they want to be part of the process, but what more can you tell us about their intention?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, there is no monolithic Sunni leadership to my understanding, which is perhaps one of the issues that has been a complicating factor.

But certainly we have maintained contact with a variety of leaders from the Al-Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, which is where many of these Sunnis reside.

I have myself, for example, been in occasional contact with the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is Sunni-dominated. So, again, we have reached out to those groups and intend to continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that – first of all – the fact of yesterday’s election, the relatively high turnout, do you think this is going to from what you know make them feel more estranged and alienated or, in fact, encourage them that, you know, this train is leaving the station, to use an old political cliché, and they should get involved?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Right. I think it’s actually encouraging them to want to get on the train. In fact, I think initially a number of them were really trying to test the system to see if they could somehow or another cause a delay in the elections.

But when the inevitability of the elections became apparent, I think we saw a number of these Sunni groups and certainly Sunni voters want to participate more in the political process and for example members of some of the Sunni parties that were not actively involved in the election have already indicated to us that they would like in some way to be involved in the drafting of the constitution.

So rather than having a polarizing effect, as some have suggested, I think this election could well, in the end, have a unifying consequence.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think – again the fact of yesterday’s election and the results means for the prospect of getting American troops out of Iraq?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, it’s certainly a very important step in terms of the government and the people of Iraq taking on even greater ownership for the management of their own affairs.

So it’s been a very, very important advance towards political democracy. I think parallel to that one of our highest priorities going forward is going to be to train and equip and try to help motivate Iraqi armed forces, their military and their police forces, so that they can take on an ever — a greater responsibility for their own security.

We’d like to see a gradual shift from us being out on the lead on security issues to the Iraqi forces being in the lead so that we can reduce our profile.

MARGARET WARNER: Some of these parties started this campaign by saying they wanted U.S. troops out quickly. And that did seem to shift toward the end.

Again, how do you read their intentions – I’m talking now about for the United Iraqi Alliance, perhaps a couple of the other major parties, in terms of whether they want to at least start talking about a timetable for withdrawal?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, a timetable was mentioned in some of the campaign documents of some of these parties. But when we spoke to many of these political leaders, they clarified that they didn’t want to mean to suggest that coalition forces should leave the country precipitously; in fact, many of them have said to us that they think that would be dangerous and would leave a serious vacuum.

On the other hand, I think they feel, and I think on this point we agree with them, that it is important that Iraqi forces themselves be enabled as rapidly as possible to take over the primary responsibility for their security and ultimately to take over full responsibility for the security situation in their own country.

And I think that’s an objective that our two countries share in common.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you’re not a military expert, but the interior minister was quoted or the interim interior minister was quoted yesterday – he thought it would take perhaps 18 months for the full Iraqi security forces to be able to handle things on their own? Does that sound reasonable to you?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, we’ve been reluctant to try and put a timetable on this to give a time estimate simply because we don’t want to create some kind of expectation that then subsequently might lead to a disappointment.

But what I can assure you is that we really are working extremely hard on this issue of training, equipping, and motivating of the Iraqi armed forces. And I would give to you as an example the extremely good performance that they displayed yesterday in protecting these 5,300 polling centers throughout the country.

The Iraqi forces deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the success of yesterday’s election.

MARGARET WARNER: Now this 72-hour lockdown does end tomorrow. Are you braced for insurgent attacks?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, one never knows exactly what to predict. Of course, there’s been a pattern, a fairly steady pattern of violence in recent weeks and months.

Obviously, we’re doing our best to control and stabilize those situations and hopefully some of the lessons learned from the experience of preparing for the elections will be helpful going forward. But I’d be very wary of trying to predict for you exactly what might happen in the next few days.

I think that it is reasonable to expect that this insurgency will continue for sometime to come and that the best way to deal with it is to keep steadily working away at it through political action, such as these elections, through training and equipping and motivating of their armed forces and the economic reconstruction activities that we have underway.

And I think through that combination of measures, I think that we over time will be able to effectively deal with the insurgency that Iraq is facing.

MARGARET WARNER: Amb. John Negroponte, thanks for being with us.

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE: Thank you very much.