Iraqis show ‘strong spirit’ in ISIS fight, ambassador says

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq is Douglas Silliman, a career Foreign Service officer who has worked on and off in Iraq since 2011, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and held other posts in Turkey and Jordan. He joins Alison Stewart to discuss the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq and the fight against the Islamic State.

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    Read the full transcript below. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq is Douglas Silliman, a career foreign service officer who has worked on and off in Iraq since 2011, has previously served as U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, and has held other posts in Turkey and Jordan.

    Ambassador Silliman joins me now from Baghdad to discuss the ongoing U.S. presence and role in Iraq and the fight against ISIS, sometimes referred to as ISIL and Daesh.


    Ambassador, as someone who has worked over that region over a prolonged period of time, I'd like to get your perspective. Is Iraq more or less stable than it was in 2011? Alison, thank you very much for having me today.

    I — my returned three months ago, was very pleased to see the feeling the civility in Iraq compared to what I felt in previous tours here. Especially, I've seen a development in the professionalism of the Iraqi military and security forces that I think has contributed to this. But probably, the most important is a very strong spirit among all Iraqis in the fight against Daesh.


    Ambassador, upon taking the post. You said that the United States is and would be working with Prime Minister Abadi to help and this is a quote, "meet the needs to the liberation of the city of Mosul."

    What are those needs and how involved is Mr. Abadi?


    Well, Prime Minister Abadi has been very much involved in the planning for the military assault on Mosul. He's also been very involved in the planning for the humanitarian assistance for those people who have been pushed out of Mosul because of the timing, and also taking care of the needs of those who are left inside the city.

    The United States has also played a significant role in both humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced, but we have also worked very closely as the leader of the international coalition against Daesh, to provide advice and assistance to the Iraqi military, airstrikes in coordination with the Iraqi military, and a significant amount of training for Iraqi security forces.


    Should ISIS be expunged from Mosul, what is being done to scaffold the Iraqi government and institution so that it can hold and maintain Mosul?


    Actually, Alison, that's a good question. There is a lot that is being done.

    First of all, in coordination with the United Nations and specifically the U.N. development program, the United States and other international partners have been working with the government of Iraq to do what we're calling stabilization, making sure that people go into the ground after areas are liberated from Daesh, reconnecting the electricity, making sure that the water works, cleaning up the debris of war where it exists and getting the basic infrastructure of life going again. Neighborhood health clinics, schools for children and small loans for businesspeople who want to get their shops open again.

    This is in Iraq a relatively tested model. We have used this as the Iraqi military has liberated the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit in the past. And the United Nations, the United States, and especially the Iraqi government have improved each time that they liberate a city and work on repairing the services.

    Mosul is a challenge because it's the largest city that will have to be liberated and rehabilitated, but we have a lot of experience and the international community has put together a very good team and has been very generous, including the United States in these efforts.


    So, the rehabilitation of those other cities you mentioned, they're a model for what you hope will happen in Mosul?


    Well, the rehabilitation for the other cities has really been a laboratory for the way to do this in the best way possible. Each city has had a different experience with Daesh and with war. So, the stabilization and rehabilitation of each city has been slightly different. For example, in the city of Tikrit, more than 95 percent of the civilian population has returned to their homes, schools are opened, university has reopened, and shops and traffic seemed very close to normal.

    In cities like Ramadi where there was more destruction, a significant part of the population has returned, but there is still areas of the city that literally have to be rebuilt. And that will take sometime for both the government and the individual homeowners, who have to go back and rebuild their lives after the war.


    The Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, has been crucial in this fight for Mosul, but some of its leaders have expressed an aspiration for independence and that's obviously complex given all the players. What's the U.S. position on Kurdish independence?


    Well, Alison, what I've been most surprised and please by in the military operation in Mosul has been the very high degree of cooperation and coordination between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. I think there was reticence on both sides to cooperate at the beginning, but with a little bit of American assistance, they have put together a very good joint battle plan for Mosul, and each side has been working very honestly and openly in coordinating with the other on the actual operations themselves.

    Now, as for — I mean, the political leadership, this cooperation has also sparked goodwill and cooperation between Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani. They have had more conversations than usual and Barzani has come down to visit Abadi in Baghdad, something he has not done much in the past. And Prime Minister Abadi has visited President Barzani in Erbil.

    So, I'm optimistic that both the on-the-ground military coordination and the political level goodwill and cooperation will provide us with a good pathway forward following the Mosul campaign.


    Now, sir, you work in the Green Zone, which is a normally a secure and safe area. But it was breached earlier this year and I know late last month, there was a security warning issued for Americans, especially mentioning potential kidnappings of people who work for NGOs. What are your safety concerns for Americans in Iraq currently?


    Alison, it is still a moderately dangerous place in Iraq. There are parts of the country that are pretty safe. But there are still many members of Daesh who are able to escape the areas where they have been isolated by the Iraqi military and conduct some conducts.

    If you look at the progress that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police have made over the past six months, you will see particularly for the large cities like Baghdad, the number attacks, armed attacks or bombing attacks has dropped significantly as security has tightened. And, frankly, as the intelligence and cooperation networks with the international coalition and between Iraqi police and security agencies have improved.

    So, it is still a dangerous place and we still caution Americans to be very sure of your security arrangements before you come to Iraq. But we see in general that the security situation is improving and we hope that once Daesh is pushed out of Iraq, the security environment will improve even more.


    And, Mr. Ambassador, what do you believe is the biggest challenge for the incoming administration, the Trump administration?


    I think that the biggest challenge for the administration will be trying to decide how much — what the next step will be in the American relationship with Iraq. I know that Prime Minister Abadi this week called President-elect Trump and he says that he had had a very good conversation with President-elect Trump. So, I'm optimistic that this relationship will continue to be a solid one under the new administration.


    Ambassador Silliman, thank you so much for your time today.


    Alison, thank you very much.

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