TOPICS > Politics

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Discusses Increasing Violence

September 15, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: The violence in Baghdad that reached a new and bloody peak this week has been going on despite a major U.S.-Iraqi operation to pacify the city. Joining us now to discuss security and political developments is Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Dr. Barham Salih.

Born in Kurdish northern Iraq, he was active in the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, mainly from outside the country, and he has been part of the post-war governing efforts since soon after the invasion.

Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, thank you for being with us.

BARHAM SALIH, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me begin by just citing what we reported earlier today: 130 dead bodies found in Baghdad over just two days; July and August, some of the deadliest months since the war began. Is the situation in your country getting better or worse?

BARHAM SALIH: Undeniably the last few weeks have been very tough, and we are faced with an onslaught by the terrorists. But it is important also to note that there are significant efforts under way to enhance the capabilities of Iraqi security services, as well as to improve the political process so that it becomes more inclusive, and solidify the unity of the Iraqis in the face of terrorists.

We are trying to build a constitutional, democratic government in the heart of the Islamic Middle East at a time when there is this wave of international terrorism. In the case of Iraq, we are also dealing with the remnants of the former regime. It has not been easy, admittedly, but at the same time, it’s important not to forget the important successes and strides that we have made since liberation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Salih, most of the bodies that were found in Baghdad over the last few days have been shot in the head. It’s been reported many of them either showed clear signs of torture or they had been bound and gagged. They were found in Sunni Arab neighborhoods. What does all of this say to you?

BARHAM SALIH: It says to me that there is serious sectarian strife in Iraqi society. Certainly, after the attack on the shrines in Samarra a few months back, this situation has escalated. Tit-for-tat killings, sectarian killings have become, unfortunately, a hallmark of the situation.

We are now engaged as a government of national unity in a campaign for national reconciliation. Prime Minister Maliki announced that soon after the government was formed. And we are reaching out to the various communities and to ensure that the political leadership of the country understand the gravity of the situation.

I cannot say that we are beyond the danger zone. We still have very serious challenges to deal with, but there are some significant changes that have taken place over the past — at least few weeks on the political track.

We have agreed in the National Security Council, that is bringing together key elected officials of the government, on a very ambitious legislative agenda to deal with contentious issues, to ensure that the government and the political process will be able to deal with the extremists, including the militias, including the terrorists, so that we can really bring stability and tranquility back to this country.

Saddam Hussein's tyranny

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about the political front in just a moment, but first let me ask you about something you said at the Pentagon yesterday. You said, "The problems of today in Iraq pale in comparison" to what you call "the tyranny and the horrors that people had to endure under Saddam Hussein." Are you saying that the reign of Saddam is worse than these massive numbers of civilian casualties?

BARHAM SALIH: To any Iraqi, the answer to that question is undeniably yes. That is not to say one can take lightly the loss of innocent life in Iraq. Every life lost is one too many, undeniably so.

But if you understand the calamity that the Iraqis had to endure for 35 years, you would understand why I say the pain of transition, the difficulties of transition, these unfortunate, appalling terrorist incidents in Iraq, have really -- it's the price of freedom that we have to be ready to pay for it.

I'm not trying to justify it or take it lightly. On the contrary, we must solidify our internal front in order to resolve the security situation. Every mass grave uncovered in Iraq for Iraqis -- and should be for outsiders, as well -- should vindicate the legitimacy of the war and the morality of the war.

If anything, the war came in too late to save so many victims of Saddam Hussein who should have been saved earlier on.

Views on the war in Iraq

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Salih, I don't know if you were able to hear, but just moments ago David Brooks, who's a regular commentator on this program, cited a number of Republicans who he said originally supported President Bush and supported this war are now, in his words, beginning to say it is irreparably lost. And he went on to say you hear them talk in terms of hopelessness almost.

What do say to those politicians and other leaders in the United States, who were with this war from the beginning but who are now beginning to lose confidence, that it is going to turn out the way they originally thought?

BARHAM SALIH: Really, having arrived in Washington a few days back, the tone of the debate is somewhat dispiriting -- I have to admit to that -- here in Washington. I don't want to get involved in domestic politics of the United States. This is American democracy, and they'll debate these issues.

But I can tell you how we feel about the situation in Iraq, from Baghdad's perspective. Undeniably, the situation is tough; the transition is difficult. It's not only that we're dealing with Iraq on its own and the Iraqi issues on their own; we are dealing with international terrorism; we're dealing with regional crosscurrents that make transition difficult for us.

But there is progress, and Iraqis have not given up hope. On the contrary, Iraqis remain committed to making this democracy work. But we have to understand that building democracy in the heart of the Middle East is not an easy option, and there are no quick fixes.

I have met with a number of members of Congress, and I made the following point to them: I think we are talking about upheaval across the region. We're talking about a sea change across the region, manifested in this radicalization of Muslim societies and Islamic groups that are confronting, by the way, not only the West, confronting reformist agenda of the Middle East.

This is a threat that we have to deal with, as Middle Easterners, as Muslims, as Iraqis, as well as a civilized community of nations, and it will take time. And we need to take the long-term view. Iraqis are adamant that we must build and complete this mission of building a democracy in Iraq.

We can do it. We must do it. Success is possible, but difficult. Many challenges are out there, but we're determined to win. Failure is not an option, and I think those who think it is irreparably lost, they lose sight of the many, many important developments.

When we assume sovereignty in June 2004, our forces were at a minimal level. Today, we have nearly 300,000 Iraqis under arm for both in the military and in the police services. By the end of this year, we will be having more than half of the Iraqi provinces under direct Iraqi security control.

There is progress taking place, but admittedly we're doing so while we are battling this lethal threat from al-Qaida and the former regime loyalists, and also the sectarian killing. But we are adamant, and we are determined to deal with it, and we will deal with it.

Re-deploying U.S. forces

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you're clearly dealing with a lot. So to those who would say -- your original supporters who would now say radical changes need to be made, serious consideration needs to be given to redeploying U.S. forces, you say what?

BARHAM SALIH: I do say we need to take stocks of the reality of Iraq, and we need to evaluate tactics and strategy, undeniably so. This is a complex situation, and I cannot say that things should stay as it is now.

I mean, we are engaged inside the Iraqi government, inside the Iraqi political leadership to assessing the situation, I would say, on a continuous basis, and we do so with the United States, as well. And we definitely need to change tactics here and there.

But the fundamental of the mission of helping Iraqis build the first functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East is not only a worthy mission, it is a necessity to change the dynamics of the Middle East. And anyone who thinks that this will be easy, they will be wrong, and their expectations will not be realized.

What I'm trying to tell you is that this is a mission that will be difficult to attain, but it is possible to do so, and we must achieve it for the sake, not only of Iraqis, but for the sake of the region and the world at-large.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And one other political question. In your own country, there's legislation to turn Iraq into a federation, into three autonomous regions. This week, the speaker of the Iraqi permanent pronounced this legislation dead. Do you agree with him? Is there going to be progress on that front?

BARHAM SALIH: There is an active debate inside the Iraqi parliament, and this is important that you point to this issue. This is one of the major issues debated by Iraqis. It will define the character of the Iraqi state.

Politics is breaking out in Iraq as a result of liberation. Iraqis have different views about this thing, but at the end of the day we will come to a national pact that hopefully most Iraqis will accept.

I cannot tell you what the outcome of these negotiations and these debates will be. It is definitely not dead. It is still an ongoing debate, but certainly last week it received a setback with a number of deputies signing a motion against the federation proposal proposed by the Shia majority party in parliament.

But the debate goes on, and this is Iraqi democracy. Some people want to point to this as a sign of divisions inside Iraq; I want to celebrate it as a sign of healthy political debate that comes with any democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We certainly have debate in this country. Dr. Barham Salih, deputy prime minister of Iraq, thank you very much for being with us.

BARHAM SALIH: Thank you for having me.