GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was a central figure in the last-minute attempts to broker support for the constitutional referendum adopted by Iraqi voters. A final official tally today showed many minority Sunni voters remained unpersuaded. But only three provinces voted no, and only two of those by the two thirds vote needed to reject the charter. President Bush, citing increased Sunni participation and decreased election day violence, today called the result "inspiring progress."
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: By any standard or precedent of history, Iraq has made incredible political progress from tyranny, to liberation, to national elections, to the ratification of a constitution in the space of two and a half years.
GWEN IFILL: Now, with the US death toll officially at the 2,000 mark as of today, and as violence continues unabated, Iraq is preparing for a new round of parliamentary elections in December.
GWEN IFILL: Joining us for an update on the situation there is US Ambassador Khalilzad.
Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: It's nice to be with you in person.
GWEN IFILL: Yes, it is. Good to see you. President Bush we heard today talked about the progress in Iraq, as he put it, roughly from tyranny to national elections, now to a constitution. Is the move -- is what awaits next going to be smoother or more rocky?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it is going to be smoother in the sense that more Iraqis are likely to participate in the elections than they did in the last election. The participation in the vote, with regard to the constitution, was very good. Iraqis from all communities participated; in the previous election, the Sunnis did not participate in significant numbers.
Now they tell that me that they will participate in the next elections, and that will be very good because the next assembly will have to be representative, the next government will have to be representative of all communities, and that would be very much a step in the right direction.
As far as the security environment is concerned, I think the terrorists and the insurgents remain strong, and they are in a position to create problems. They failed to do something significant on the day of the referendum, but their potential to disrupt, to attack remains, so I'm not predicting an easy security environment going towards the election, but I think in terms of participation, it will be positive.
GWEN IFILL: We're always looking for turning points in the US involvement in Iraq, whether it was the capture of Saddam Hussein, the elections last January, the ratification of this constitution. Does this represent the turning point that you're looking for?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I don't like that -- the word "turning point." I think it's a step, and only in retrospect will we be able to tell which step of the various steps that have been taken or will be taken would have been the decisive one.
It's hard when you have been in the middle of a lot of things going on to characterize one as being decisive. This will have to be a retrospective judgment some years down the road. But I think this was positive. It was a good thing that the agreement was made in the last minute that allows for possible changes to the constitution within the first six months of the next assembly.
That requirement, that flexibility, I think, will encourage Sunnis to participate in the elections as well because they will have another opportunity, those who voted against the draft, to push for additional changes, and we will encourage others to listen to them, to -- if there are reasonable requests for changes, to be responsive to those requests.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about the level of Sunni participation, which was greater than it was last time, but still not where you would probably like it to be.
I'd like to read some of your words back to you from an interview you gave last week to Arab Television. You said, "Iraq cannot succeed if a majority community decides that it doesn't want to participate or is against the emerging system."
By your own definition, is Iraq succeeding?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, Iraq is succeeding but it's a process. It has taken a positive step. I'm not saying Iraq has succeeded. Iraq is making progress, and we have a long way to go. It will be a difficult road ahead.
I think the constitution, the fact that people participated indicated that they have developed confidence in the process, their participation indicated that. And that was a good thing because in January, when the elections took place, they did not participate.
The Sunnis did not participate in sufficient numbers, and it indicated at that time that they didn't have enough confidence in the process. So compared to the January election and the referendum was a positive step, and, therefore, it should be regarded positively.
GWEN IFILL: Generals on the ground have said they expect an uptick in violence, spikes of violence in the wake of the outcome, and of course the insurgency, as you alluded to, continues in many respects unabated.
How do you accommodate insurgency at the same time -- this kind of unpredictable insurgency -- at the same time that you're trying to make progress on the political track?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: We cannot succeed by military means alone. In order to win the war, to establish an Iraq that can stand on its own feet, you -- we have to win the people away from two types of insurgents in particular: The terrorists and the Jihadists that come from outside; and, two, those who want Saddam Hussein to come back. To isolate these two groups from the population and the rest and for that, the political process is important.
They have to see -- the population has to see itself, the Sunni population where the insurgency and the terrorism is, that they have a stake in the new system, and for them to cooperate with us and with the Iraqi security forces against these folks. And I think we're making progress in that direction.
We need the help of also Arab countries beyond Iraq who have relations with the Sunni Arabs, and we've been engaging them.
GWEN IFILL: And Secretary Rice suggested to Congress last week that you might be given the flexibility to engage, in particular with Iran. Is that something you plan to do?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I've been given that flexibility, and we are working the modalities off that and we --
GWEN IFILL: What --
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: -- normal relations --
GWEN IFILL: What does that mean?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: How to set it up -- who will be the -- counterpart, where the meeting will take place. All of that is being worked out.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about withdrawal. Secretary Rice has talked about that this should be a results-based decision, not a timing-based decision, which means no timetable will be set.
How do you quantify what it takes to begin to it will Americans that we will be in a position to draw down our forces?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, the current size of our force, 138,000, and the composition of the force, and the mission of the force are not ends in themselves for us; they should not be.
The end is for the Iraqis to be able to take care of Iraqi security, and, therefore, as Iraqi capability is increased, as we make progress in terms of winning the Sunni population, as we isolate the insurgents, we can adapt the size of the force -- meaning to reduce -- we can change the mission of the force from great emphasis on fighting to helping Iraqis.
We can also change the composition of the force as the mission changes. So I believe that we are on the right track to start significant reductions in the coming year.
GWEN IFILL: In the coming year.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk to members of Congress who have gotten increasingly critical about this idea, the open-ended nature of the assignment, do they accept that?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I have not had a conversation yet. I will have in my visit, meetings with them. I think the problem is that there is a crisis of confidence that I see out there in whether we know what we're doing, whether we have the right plan, whether we will succeed in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: Whose crisis of confidence?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: On the part of the American people, that I think is reflected in the comments of some of our congressional representatives and senators.
I think we are -- we do have the beginning of adjustments that I think puts us on the right path to succeeding in Iraq.
This election that's coming will be very important. If the Sunnis participate, if we have a government that is truly representative, the next government that represents Shiites as well as Sunni Arabs, as well as Kurds, and if we develop cooperative arrangements, as we are trying with Arab states beyond Iraq to help with the outreach effort that we are making towards the Sunnis, and also to make sure that Syria changes its policies, and I think the pressure on Syria is increasing to bring about that change, and the engagement that you alluded to with regard to Iran, I think with these adaptations, we can begin to move in the right direction.
On the military track, I have to add that besides going after the insurgents, besides training Iraqis, besides securing the borders, we are also adding -- securing areas to the mix and I think that was a necessary adaptation to make progress against the insurgency.
GWEN IFILL: The president in his remarks today also said that without -- I think he said there would be no peace without victory, or no victory without peace.
How do you it will Americans -- how should Americans be gauging defining what victory is?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, victory is when Iraq can stand on its own feet, when the Iraqi security forces can take care of this, the security needs of Iraq, when you have a democratic process coming to fruition, having a representative government, representative institutions, when you have checks and balances, when we have human rights of reaction being respected and where Iraq, rather than being a place of dictatorship, allied with countries that are hostile to the United States, Iraq helps the model to help reshape this region.
GWEN IFILL: It sounds like a lot to happen in 12 months.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I did not say that Iraq as we define success, that we can achieve that in 12 months. Within 12 months, one can begin to adjust by reducing forces, but still there will be needs in Iraq that will necessitate US support and involvement, including some military presence beyond 12 months.
But I believe within 12 months, Iraq will be well on its way towards success, will have made significant progress from where we are today.
GWEN IFILL: US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you so much for joining us.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, thank you.