London, Asharq Al-Awsat- In an exclusive extensive interview, Asharq al Awsat sits down with out-going US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher R. Hill, to discuss the current Iraqi election stalemate and the possibility of US involvement in resolving the crisis, the issue of Iran, and preparations for the start of U.S. troops withdrawal at the end of August. Christopher Hill was nominated as US Ambassador to Iraq on 11 March 2009 by President Barack Obama, after a long and renowned diplomatic career. Hill was a key US negotiator in the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the Bosnian war, and he also played an important role in the Kosovo crisis. He previously served as US Ambassador to Macedonia, Poland, and the South Korea, before being appointed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2005. Hill’s tenure as US Ambassador to Iraq saw over some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent times in Iraq, as well as the parliamentary elections that led to the current political stalemate.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Ambassador, almost 4 months after the elections, Iraq still does not have a new Prime Minister or a new government. Where does this leave Iraq and the political process for the future?
[Ambassador Hill] Well, first of all, they have a government that is still in office and a Prime Minister still in office, so services are being performed and security matters have been addressed by the government in place but your question speaks to the need for Iraq to form a new government after these elections. There are conversations going on among political coalitions and I think what has emerged from all these discussions is that there needs to be an inclusive government, one that enjoys the full participation of the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. So that is universally agreed. The problem of course is about who will be the Prime Minister? Who will be the Deputy Prime Minister? Who will be the Speaker? Who will be the President? These types of issues, and I sense from the Iraqi people that these issues ought to be solved and that Iraq moves ahead.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the US doing to try and resolve this stalemate?
[Ambassador Hill] We are in constant communication with all parties, we are very active in Iraq but we are active in an appropriate way. We are not abusing our position there. We respect Iraq’s sovereignty and we respect the fact that an Iraqi government needs to be negotiated and built by Iraqis themselves, but we have made very clear to the Iraqi politicians the need to put aside personal ambitions and to address the need for the early formation of the government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman has held numerous meetings in Iraq with different parties. Did he put forward any proposals to resolve the political stalemate in Iraq? Are there any such proposals on the table?
[Ambassador Hill] There are not any proposals that are coming from outside Iraq or proposals that are considered coming from outside Iraq. Of course, [there are] a lot of proposals here that one hears in Baghdad. We don’t believe that it is our role to be making proposals. In fact Assistant Secretary Feltman did not come with any proposal in his briefcase, not at all, and I think we made that clear in a statement from the Embassy. What we are trying to do is to work with the parties to ensure that they share a sense of urgency; I think their people have to get on with the task of forming a government. It is not an easy process, it is important to understand that this very democratic and well run election that yielded the result in which parties that were very close in terms of outcomes. So I think the logic of it is that these people need to get together to form a government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There have been conflicting reports out of Baghdad. Officials from the Iraqiya bloc have been saying that Mr. Feltman proposed some kind of rotation of power, or power sharing.
[Ambassador Hill] No. Mr. Feltman did not come in with any such proposal, nor with any proposal. He came to try to listen and learn, the process was to consult our embassy to meet with the Iraqi officials, but proposals of that nature need to come from Iraqis not from foreigners.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc has been saying that they informed the American side of their refusal of any rotation and their insistence on their right to form the government. What is the exact position?
[Ambassador Hill] Has “Iraqiya” stated their position to us? If they stated their position to us then it is the same position they stated to their own members, but again the United State is not brokering an agreement. What we are doing is encouraging “Iraqiya”, encouraging “the State of Law” Coalition, and encouraging the Kurds not to come to us but to go to each other to try and move this thing forward.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] An alliance has been formed between the “State of Law Coalition” and the “Iraqi National Alliance.” Has this changed the equation in terms of who has the first right to try and form the government?
[Ambassador Hill] I think the Iraqis need to work that out. The issue of the “State of the Law” with the Iraqi National Alliance, the question whether that constitute the largest parliamentary bloc with purposes of article 76 paragraph is really something that the Iraqis need to work out themselves. It is not for us to do that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The names of Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari have been mentioned as compromise candidates for the position of Prime Minister as a way out of this situation. Is there such a scenario? Has that been the case to your knowledge?
[Ambassador Hill] Well, I know that the Sadrists have proposed Jaafari’s name, I know that people in [Ammar] Al Hakim`s circles proposed Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s name, I know that the State of Law is certainly proposing that the Prime Minister keeps his position in Baghdad. The positions are well known. The issue in Baghdad is whether the two major Shia coalitions can come together and agree on one name.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support a compromise figure?
[Ambassador Hill] It is not for us to support a name or a compromise figure, we support the Iraqi political coalition that will make an agreement and form a government on an early basis. And I want to stress that we want them to form a government not because of our timetable but because we believe that the Iraqi people want to see the government soon, they have not had any laws in many months, they have not had an active parliamentary debate in many months, so we believe that the Iraqi people are looking for this and we encourage the Iraqi politicians to respond. It is not for us. It is not for our timetable.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iyad Allawi announced last week that the US informed him on two separate occasions of a plot to assassinate him, while al-Maliki has previously spoken about assassination plots against him. Do you have any information regarding these assassination plots?
[Ambassador Hill] I don’t have any information to share on the assassination plots. Obviously it is the responsibility of the Iraqi security forces to provide proper security to all the Iraqi public figures and I am sure that this is being addressed, but I don’t have an independent view on this matter
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did the warning come from the US?
[Ambassador Hill] I am not aware of that. I am certainly not aware of that. So, I just have to tell you that I don’t know. It did not come from our Embassy; I can assure you of that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In a previous interview you said that the Accountability and Justice Commission was announced but not formed officially by the previous parliament. Does this mean that the work carried out by this Commission has no legal and constitutional foundation?
[Ambassador Hill] To be sure we were greatly concerned at that time about the transparency of that Commission, and we had concerns about how the Commission had emerged in the middle of political campaign. Certainly, you recall the statement by the Iraqi Presidency in which they expressed publicly these concerns, and I would know that their expressed concerns in the matter were dealt with, and I would agree all the work done was in accordance with the law.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the current political vacuum being exploited by external forces?
[Ambassador Hill] First of all, I don’t want to accept the premise of your question that there is a political vacuum, but I will say that there are external forces who somehow believe that there are Iraqis who they say are subject to intervention by its neighbors. We would encourage all those countries to understand that their best chance for a good relationship with Iraq is to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and we would hope that they would do so.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you say to those who argue that America has presented Iraq to Iran on a silver plate?
[Ambassador Hill] They argue that we presented Iraq on a silver plate to Iran? We believe that Iraq is an emerging democracy; we believe Iraq is a very proud and independent and sovereign state. We believe Iraq will have an opening to the international community and certainly has an opening to us, and we can see better relations formed not only with countries in Europe, but also countries in the Middle East where we have seen a number of countries sending top quality diplomats to work in Iraq. So we believe that what we have in front of us is a country that is overcoming a legacy of isolation; a country that is overcoming dictatorship and certainly overcoming the terrible effects of terrorism. So if people think that is handing Iraq to Iran I think they are quite mistaken.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With Iran now facing tougher sanctions, do you think that this will prompt Tehran to interfere more in Iraq? Do you expect a flare up of more violence?
[Ambassador Hill] I don’t know; you will have to ask the Iranians what their reaction would be to tougher sanctions. I hope Iran will react to it by understanding that their nuclear weapons programs cannot be tolerated. I think Iran has an interest in a good relationship with Iraq. They had not had a good relation in the past. When you look at the opinion polls data in Iraq, there is a lot of resentment of Iran trying to interfere and so I think Iran should look at their policies and determine whether those policies are consistent with a long term positive relationship with Iraq. The United States does not oppose a relationship between Iran and Iraq but that relationship needs to be based on respect for sovereignty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a possibility that Iran might use Iraq as a corridor to break the sanctions?
[Ambassador Hill] I don’t think so. I think that Iraq certainly has an obligation as a UN member state to observe UN sanctions, and I think Iraq has a great interest in overcoming this legacy of isolation and the first thing that they have to do to overcome such a legacy of international isolation is to obey UN Security Council resolutions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the withdrawal of American combat troops fast approaching, do you think that you are abandoning Iraq?
[Ambassador Hill] We will still have combat forces in Iraq. We will not withdraw all of these forces but we will reduce their numbers and end their combat mission except in so far the mission to combat terrorism and engage in operations with Iraqis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So fifty thousand American troops will be left in Iraq after 31 August?
[Ambassador Hill] There will be a very strong force and their mission is to advise and assist the Iraqi army and make sure the Iraqi Army continues to improve and continues to build the capabilities it needs to defend its borders.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have answered the questions surrounding withdrawal very diplomatically. However, with complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq being promised before the end of 2011, what will you do if the security situation deteriorates? You must have some contingency plans?
[Ambassador Hill] Again I don’t deal with contingency planning, and people who do, do not talk about it. So I have no knowledge of any such efforts. What I can tell you is we will live 100 percent live up to the Security Agreement and that Security Agreement which expires at the end of 2011 ends the legality of US Forces in Iraq and so we will be out of Iraq as our President has said in many occasions. We will live up to our obligations not only to our own Commander-in-Chief but also to our agreement with Iraq. You mentioned that it is a diplomatic answer; it is not a diplomatic answer. What it means is that we want the Iraqi people to know that when their government has an agreement with us we live up to that agreement. And we believe that that is the best way to ensure that we will have a long term relationship that both our countries would like to have. Their people need to know that the Americans live by their word.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Of course, when you say out of Iraq completely you mean militarily?
[Ambassador Hill] Yes militarily and that is what the security agreement involves. We have the largest embassy in Iraq, those are very solid buildings that we have there, and they are not going anywhere. We will continue to have this very very large mission in Iraq and we will continue to have presence outside Baghdad as well.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the US maintain any military bases in Iraq?
[Ambassador Hill] Again our military is in Iraq on the basis of the Security Agreement, that is a legal basis for our military to be there; and when that Security Agreement ends our forces will be out of Iraq. That all I can say about that issue because that is all I know about that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the American Legacy in Iraq seven years after the invasion?
[Ambassador Hill] It has been a very difficult 7 years since the invasion but I do believe that Iraq is moving in a better direction. I do believe that we have an emerging democracy in the Middle East, a democracy that I think the Middle East should do its best to welcome and to nurture. I believe that we have created or – I should say – helped to create with mutual efforts working with the Iraqis, to get rid of Saddam Hussein, created potential for a very stable, very economical, prosperous element in the Middle East which no one in the Middle East needs fear. A stable, prosperous and democratic Iraq is an element for peace in the Middle East rather than an unstable, undemocratic and unprosperous Iraq which is what was under Saddam Hussein. Iraq needs to overcome its legacy of isolation especially from other Arab states and so we helped all other Arab States to understand that the way to counter Iranian influence is not to stay away from Iraq but rather to come to Iraq and to extend a hand of friendship and work with the Iraqis and make it clear that Iraq’s future lies in proper integration in the region and in the world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A recent report has claimed that America leaves Iraq with a legacy of toxic waste because of the dumping of material from the American bases some of which is toxic. What is your reaction to this?
[Ambassador Hill] Anytime you have military bases- and we have had some 500 of them in Iraq- Anytime you have this great number of military bases, there is a certain amount of so-called toxic waste. Our forces have a lot of experience dealing with this as we turn the bases over to the host government whether it is in Germany or Korea or anywhere else, and now in Iraq. We need to make sure that the toxic materials are dealt with properly and if there are reports that they are not we follow up and make sure that they are. We have a great commitment to leave places the way we found them. We understand that commitment, and we continue to follow that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said in a previous interview that the best days in Iraq are yet to come. When?
[Ambassador Hill] Inshallah, I think Iraq has had a very troubled history. There is no question about that, and I think Iraq has been behest by dictatorship and terrorism and isolation. So I think we have the capacity now to deal with all the three of those problems, and to really usher in a new era. Indeed, I do believe that the best is yet to come but I think to some extent it will depend on the choices that we make, and the choices that Iraq’s neighbors make in terms of welcoming Iraq into the region and ensuring that Iraq is not again isolated. You know not unlike in the life of an individual when you isolate a person then that person will sometimes behave even worse than that person did before. So I think it is very important for the countries in the region to extend a hand to Iraq, and I believe we can be part of that process in whether they understand that Iraq is not a threat to its Arab neighbors
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The analogy you have just used about isolating somebody and how that somebody might act in an even worst way than before, could this be said about isolating Iran?
[Ambassador Hill] Iranians have had many years to deal with the international community’s concerns about its nuclear programs and for whatever reason they have chosen to ignore the international community. The countries that have agreed on these sanctions have not agreed on them lightly. They were very carefully thought through and very carefully discussed over many years. So this is a matter for the Iranians to understand what they need to do.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are leaving your post after just 14 months. What is the reason? Is it dissatisfaction with the situation in Baghdad or do you have policy differences with Washington?
[Ambassador Hill] I arrived in Baghdad in April 2009 and my tour of duty was for one year from that date. I chose to stay longer than one year, extending my service in Baghdad through the end of the summer 2010.
I look forward to close cooperation with my successor to ensure a smooth turnover at the U.S. Embassy, emphasizing continuation of America’s commitment to a long-term relationship with Iraq based on mutual respect, promotion of democracy, prosperity, and security in Iraq, and furthering our common goal of stability throughout the region.