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In Washington, Iraqi PM Focuses on Security Steps

July 23, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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During a weeklong visit to the U.S., Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Obama to discuss the road ahead for the country's security situation and other key policy issue. Margaret Warner reports.
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MARGARET WARNER: When bombs go off in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, it is now Iraqi soldiers, not American forces, who rush to the scene. The handoff was a major milestone in returning control of Iraq to the people who live there, while keeping 130,000 U.S. troops in the background for now.

But when Iraqis celebrated the June 30th withdrawal of U.S. forces from the cities, U.S. officials were stunned to hear Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tout the milestone on television by likening it to the Iraqi revolt against the British military occupation in 1920.

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE, former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S.: He wants to bolster his position by taking an ultra sort of hard line, the movement of U.S. troops.

MARGARET WARNER: Rend Francke, a former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., says Maliki is playing to a domestic political audience in advance of next January’s presidential election.

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: It’s important to show that he is the strong man of Iraq who is ridding Iraq of occupation troops, getting rid of the occupiers, getting them out of the cities, and restoring sovereignty to Iraq, and giving the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces full control over the country as a measure of sovereignty.

MARGARET WARNER: Christopher Hill is the new U.S. ambassador in Iraq.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, U.S. ambassador to Iraq: I think, if you’re an American and you’ve seen what our troops go through every day, the fact that we’ve lost thousands of lives, that aspect of Iraq domestic politics is, frankly, a little hard to take for a lot of Americans.

But in so doing, why was he doing it? He was trying to tell the public: This is an important victory. And like all great victories, there will be sacrifice. And we need to steel ourselves, we need to brace ourselves for the sacrifice to follow.

Withdrawal timetable still on track

MARGARET WARNER: There was no visible tension yesterday when President Obama greeted Maliki at the White House and said the timetable for full U.S. withdrawal by December 2011 seems to be on track.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Violence continues to be down, and Iraqis are taking responsibility for their future. This progress has been made possible by the resilience of the Iraqi people and security forces and also because of the extraordinary service of American troops and civilians in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: But privately, U.S. officials acknowledge there are strains. U.S. commanders have complained that Iraqis are interpreting the so-called status-of-forces agreement to impose dangerously tight restrictions on U.S. force movements.

Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he's been disturbed by the reports.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D- Mass.: My principal concern is that the Iraqis don't move overly aggressively to assert their sovereignty, and the fact that, you know, this is the transition and they're now in charge in some robust way that, frankly, does a disservice to our troops, even puts them at risk.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think they are?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: There are some signs that a few incidents have arisen where they've been only too happy to assert their prerogatives, and I think we have to just make sure that that's not going to become a regular process.

MARGARET WARNER: When Maliki was confronted with those questions today at an appearance at a prominent Washington think-tank, his message was clear: Whether the issue is security or power-sharing negotiations inside Iraq, he, not the Americans, is in charge.

Maliki pushed back hard on the question of restrictions on U.S. troop movements.

Mr. Prime Minister, can you guarantee that U.S. forces will never be prevented from defending themselves in whatever manner they, in their judgment, is most effective?

U.S. forces must protect themselves

NOURI AL-MALIKI, prime minister, Iraq (through translator): I'm surprised by the media raising these ideas, because there is a security agreement in place agreed by the two parties. All the mechanisms were put in place.

The agreement guarantees that the U.S. forces can defend themselves. Cooperation and coordination is still found at all levels. If there's any problem that arises, that does not mean that's something that is not right with the agreement or any removal of the guarantees for the U.S. personnel's safety.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Hill expressed confidence that adjustments will be made.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: The bottom line is, our forces have to have the right to protect themselves, and they're going to exert that right, and that right is rather enshrined in that security agreement. So, you know, I can assure you we're not going to have a situation where our forces can't protect themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Maliki is also being pressed by the administration and Congress to do more to resolve tensions among Iraq's disparate political and religious groups in a process known as reconciliation.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I don't think he's been strong enough and relentless enough about achieving the political reconciliation that's necessary. So the principal issues that were principal issues of division four and five years ago remain the principal issues of division today, and the danger is that, as we begin to draw down our troops, if that is not resolved, you can have an increase of conflict within Iraq itself.

MARGARET WARNER: At issue are disputed areas between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq, flashpoints that pit Maliki's Shiite-dominated government against the Kurdish Regional Government and local Kurds against Arabs. Also at issue is the division of Iraq's oil revenues.

Vice President Biden went to Iraq earlier this month to urge more on this front and offer to help. A Maliki spokesman quickly responded by telling U.S. reporters that reconciliation was an Iraqi matter and the Americans shouldn't get involved.

But Ambassador Hill says the Iraqis do want help behind the scenes.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think we need to avoid a couple of things. One is to say, there are reconciliation issues and, you know, being Americans, we'll just come in and, you know, you guys will get reconciled, like it or not. And we've also got to avoid the concept that says, "You guys have to reconcile. You know, we're tired of this, and we're out of here. You take care of it." That's not going to work, either.

Bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide

MARGARET WARNER: And though progress has been slow, Hill sees some encouraging moves by Maliki in bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: It's very interesting, just a couple of weeks ago, that Maliki went out to Anbar province, in the Fallujah area, and talked to Sunni tribal leaders. Now, this, to put it mildly, would have been unheard of a couple of years ago. That's kind of unprecedented that that's sort of thing has gone on, so -- and, frankly, I'd put that in the hopeful category.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, questions linger in Washington if Maliki is the leader to hold Iraq together as it enters this new phase.

And how much confidence do you have that Prime Minister Maliki has the will and the skill to do that?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: It's not for a foreign diplomat to be doing report cards on prime ministers, except to say that, you know, we don't select him. We work with him. And I've worked with him a lot. I've worked with him on detailed issues that we're trying to get done.

I think, as he comes to Washington and people see him, people will see that we have in Iraq a very capable partner.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I believe he has surprised people in his ability already to be a survivor, to have achieved the security arrangement that we now have where the troops are withdrawing, and, frankly, to cobble together certain kinds of coalitions that have served his purposes. The question is, will his purposes be large enough and, in fact, represent all of Iraq? Or will they be narrow and sectarian? That's the key here.

MARGARET WARNER: Does the slow progress on the political front endanger the timetable for U.S. troops getting out?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: No. We're leaving, and they need to realize that, if they don't want Iraq to just tumble back into chaos and disorder and sectarian violence, they need to resolve those issues now.

MARGARET WARNER: Late this evening, Prime Minister Maliki comes to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to the more than 4,500 Americans who've died in the Iraq war. It's viewed as a potentially risky move back home, a vivid reminder of how complicated the U.S.-Iraqi relationship remains.

JIM LEHRER: Again, on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org, there's more of Margaret's interview with Ambassador hill. He talks about security in Iraq and the tasks ahead for Prime Minister Maliki.