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U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad Calls for Crackdown on Militias

May 23, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Khalilzad, welcome. You were deeply involved in the negotiations that led to the formation of this new government. Are you pleased with the result?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: I am. This is a government that is truly a government of national unity; that’s what Iraq needs at the present time.

The Sunni Arabs were opposed to the presence of the U.S. forces and to the political process that started here with the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. They supported the insurgency. They opposed the political process.

But now they are very much part of the political process. All three major Iraqi communities and others — the Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds — are now in the assembly, in the government. This was a necessary precondition for getting Iraq on the right trajectory, and we have that now.

There are challenges, of course, but I think what has happened so far has been significant.

A need for reconciliation

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Of course that's one of the challenges that is still there. And your reference to sectarianism, that is one of the main problems of Iraq. That's why there is a need for a national unity government; that's why there is need for reconciliation.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the prime minister couldn't get agreement on the three very important national security posts. Does that suggest to you that sectarian divisions are still more powerful than any commitment to a common agenda in this new government?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Of course that's one of the challenges that is still there. And your reference to sectarianism, that is one of the main problems of Iraq. That's why there is a need for a national unity government; that's why there is need for reconciliation.

But what has been agreed to is that the defense minister, the interior minister, that they would be people who are not sectarian, that they are accepted broadly, but that they are independent of ties with militias, that they are unifiers.

And quite a number of people have been identified. They're being checked, and they're being interviewed. My judgment is, in the course of the next few days, there should be an agreement on two broadly accepted people for these two positions.

Putting down sectarian militias

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
The people who are involved in these sectarian killings need to know that there will be consequences for indulging, getting involved in sectarian killings. Right now, there is a sense that they have that, that they can get away with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, in the meantime, scores, sometimes as many as 100 Iraqis, are still dying every day. What does this new government bring to the table that will really tamp down that violence in a way that the old government couldn't?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: One, that this government, unlike the previous government, this is a government of national unity, that all communities are represented.

Second, I think you're right that sectarian killing is a major problem. This government has to deal with this issue, particularly by focusing not only on reconciliation, but also on dealing with militias. The previous government was reluctant to deal with some of the militias.

I have talked repeatedly with Prime Minister al-Maliki, and he has spoken himself eloquently on the issue of the need to bring the militias under control.

Also, what needs to happen, Margaret, is that the people who are involved in these sectarian killings need to know that there will be consequences for indulging, getting involved in sectarian killings. Right now, there is a sense that they have that, that they can get away with it, and the security forces, they're not afraid of or some of the security forces might even be involved in some of these sectarian efforts.

That's why you need good ministers of interior and defense that can, over time, deal with the problems inside the government forces, and then, besides reconciliation, you need to, without help -- and we're working with Prime Minister al-Maliki to develop a plan for security for Baghdad -- that together we can change the calculus of those that are involved in this.

This will take time, but I think, with a new government, Iraq has a new start.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it true, all these reports we read, that in fact many of these militias are part of the Iraqi security forces and are using those uniforms that cover, if you will, to carry out these sectarian killings?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: There are some, indeed, security forces who are from the militias, and that at some element -- not all of the forces who are militias who are now part of the security forces -- may be facilitating or participating in some of the problems that we are discussing.

It's very important that the new minister -- that's why we're emphasizing that they have to be strong, independent, broadly accepted ministers -- take a look at their own institutions, particularly in the interior ministry, that they vet and re-vet the people who are there and, at the same time, that those who violate the law are punished, and that punishment is done in a way that sends a strong message that cooperation with forces outside the government, government forces participating in illegal activity, will not be tolerated.

It is very important, also, that the remaining militias are dealt with, their program for commissioning demobilization, reintegration is developed and implemented, and that only authorized people can carry weapons on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Conflicting signals from Iran

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Our position is clear that, in the aftermath of the formation of government, we'll be prepared to consider talking to them [Iran] about our concerns about the situation, with regard to Iraq and the Iranian policies.

MARGARET WARNER: You've been negotiating all these weeks with Prime Minister Maliki, so you've gotten to know him. What does he have that the previous prime minister didn't that you think will make him better able to tackle all these problems?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: He's a very hands-on leader. He is good in terms of prioritizing. He is good in terms of decision-making.

Right now, his priorities are security for Baghdad and electricity for Baghdad. Of course, we know that there are lots of problems in Iraq, but he has focused on a couple of very important ones, so I believe that he will do a good job for Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: You were authorized -- and Secretary of State Rice talked about it earlier this year -- that, once the new government was formed, you'd be talking to Iran about the situation in Iraq. Now that we have a government, are those talks going to go forward, and if so, how soon? What's the agenda?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Of course, we still have the few ministers, as we have discussed, to be selected. We have said, and I've said before, that we would be willing in principle to talk with them after the formation of the unity government. We will consider that.

The message from Iran on this has been conflicting in recent weeks, but our position is clear that, in the aftermath of the formation of government, we'll be prepared to consider talking to them about our concerns about the situation, with regard to Iraq and the Iranian policies.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say, briefly, that they are still being, as Secretary Rumsfeld has said, unhelpful in Iraq?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think it's a mixed policy that they have. On the one hand, they are playing a positive role, vis-a-vis support for the government.

And, on the other hand, they are playing a negative role, because there is good evidence that they are supporting some militias, and we've discussed the problem of militias, that they are providing financial support. Some groups are playing an unhelpful role, and some of their people who are here are playing unhelpful roles.

So I would regard their policy to be a mixed one. We would like their policy to be transparent and in support of this transformation or the transition in Iraq.

Bringing the troops home

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Getting Iraq to stand on its own feet is the goal. And with changing conditions, there can be adjustments downward, and the conditions are moving strategically in that direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what would you say to the American public that may be saying, "All right, now we finally have an independent, freely elected, full-term government in Iraq. When can American forces leave?"

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think, with the unity government, strategically Iraq is put on the right track. This had to happen for Iraq to succeed.

But tactically we need to see what the impact is of this government. We need to see the impact of the ministers of the interior and defense on the security forces. We need to see the impact on the situation with regard to reconciliation, bringing the insurgency in.

I think the next three to six months will be critical. And I think once the conditions are positively affected, as I anticipate they will be, then substantial adjustments can begin to take place and sort of a condition-based time line can be agreed to.

But it's very important for the American people to know that the current size of the force, the current mission of the force, the current composition of the force are not ends in themselves. Getting Iraq to stand on its own feet is the goal. And with changing conditions, there can be adjustments downward, and the conditions are moving strategically in that direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you very much.