London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The US policy in Iraq for 2008 will be focused on making the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki work, rather than opting for a “Plan B”, that is, implementing a new government. Asharq Al-Awsat met with Ambassador David Satterfield, Advisor to the American Secretary of State and Coordinator for Iraq since August 2006, during a stopover in London returning to Washington from Baghdad, to discuss his administration’s assessment of the developments in Iraq.
Q) What is your assessment of the situation in Iraq following your recent visit there?
A) The situation in Iraq over the course of 2007 significantly improved with respect to two critical indicators. Firstly, more Iraqi citizens in more parts of the country are more secure today than at any point since [the war began in] 2003. There are several reasons for this improvement. One is the surge of US forces and the application of those forces in Baghdad and its environs and other areas affected by sectarian violence during 2006.
Secondly, we have more capable Iraqi forces that are able to fight the enemy and forces that are able to operate not just in partnership with the US but independently. This is the product of the training and equipping that the US and the Coalition have been involved in over the last few years. The so-called Anbar Awakening Council, which in fact is now a phenomenon that extends well beyond the Anbar province, has resulted in a diminution in insurgent Sunni attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces and has led to the constraining of Al-Qaeda’s ability to conduct its terrorist campaign in Anbar and elsewhere.
Finally, another contributing factor is the fragmentation of Jaish al Mahdi, the ceasefire declared by Muqtada Al Sadr and the diminishing role of violence by Shia militias and Shia death squads. These factors combined have led to dramatically improved security and that is security reflected in any metric you care to look at whether attacks on civilians, attacks on Iraqi security forces and most recently a welcome development that is less attacks on US and Coalition forces which had increased earlier last year as the fight was taken to the enemy.
The other significant area of positive progress in 2007 was in the economic field. The Iraqi government has been more able, on the central and provincial levels, to execute its central budget to provide funding and to spend in a better fashion. I will give you an interesting comparison: in 2006, the Iraqi government was able to execute only about 15% of its capital budget whereas in 2007 we estimate that it will be 65% plus budget execution. Now this is a product of significantly enhanced government planning capability and this is something we have worked very hard on. It is a product of the better ability of governance at a provincial level once security has been restored. Anbar is the best example of this; to identify needs and then to deal with the central government in order to help meet those needs. Now our provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) have been part and parcel of the stabilisation process, post-kinetic stabilisation, over the course of last year. As you know, we increased the number of PRTs from 10 to 28. We have sent over 300 new personnel to staff these teams and they work very closely with local government and local citizens in terms of developing programs that have a direct impact on improving the lives of Iraqis on the ground. We have worked at the central government level with all of the service and economic ministries to better enable the central government to plan, execute and assist in the local governance, as well as in the national services. However, we still have a long way to go and we do not understate the challenges here, but it is important to recognise what has been gained over the past period.
Q) So there has been significant improvement in the fields of economics and security; what about politics?
A) The political process is where much more progress must be made, specifically advancing a political dialogue, the concrete results of which advance national reconciliation. That is a critical goal, not just a rhetorical one but a very practical one. It has been the lacking indicator in Iraq over the last year and it is where our and Iraq’s focus needs to be placed over the year to come.
In September 2007, [US Ambassador to Iraq] Ryan Crocker and [Commanding General of the Multi National Forces in Iraq] General Petraeus frankly stated that the true national reconciliation, a vital goal, was a long term objective; however there must be progress towards that objective here and now in the short and medium term.
Therefore, Iraqi leadership, all of the critical leaders, Kurds, Sunnis and Shia, need to move forward to make government and governance work more effectively, to translate the better working of government into specific progress on the building blocks of national reconciliation. There has been some positive progress in the latter part of last year, a pensions law passed which contains many significant elements that amounted to reintegration of those who had been affected by the Debathification law into normal life of the country. That is an encouraging progress.
The Debathification laws themselves were reformed and passed in the Council of Representatives and will soon go to the presidency council; this represents a significant step forward. We have been very clear about this; no law whether in our system or the Iraqi system can be seen as perfect by all parties involved. Legislation in a democratic system needs compromise. We believe that such a compromise is present in the Debathification law, the so called Accountability and Justice Law. What is critical is that such law is implemented in a spirit of reconciliation and unification. Obviously we will be closely engaged with the government as the process is executed and implemented, but we regard it as a very positive step and we look to its full support by all elements of Iraq.
But there are other articles on the legislative reconciliation agenda that need to be worked on. The Iraqi government and the leadership of Iraq’s critical parties, as well as ourselves, see that the provincial powers law which will determine the relationship between the centre and the periphery should be a priority. We see this as a critical step towards passing a local or provincial elections law and towards holding these elections this year. All of this is important for several reasons. Firstly, the nature of federalism in Iraq needs to be better defined in order to provide a stable basis for the country to move forward not just at the centre but at the provincial and regional levels. There is no perfect solution in Iraq or elsewhere to the question of federalism. In the US we have been evolving different answers to that question for over 200 years and the same is true in other countries.
What is needed is the correct striking of balance now with the understanding that as circumstances in Iraq evolve, the answer to federalism will also evolve. But it is a situation that must be addressed now. Local elections are necessary to rectify the imbalance and distortion in local government that was produced by the Sunni boycott. Yet it is not just a Sunni issue; as Iraq stabilises and moves away from conflict, all communities will need to better address the relationship between the elector and the elected officials. This requires an open list electoral law, in which the elector knows who he or she is electing. The bond between the elected and the constituent would be much stronger than in the current closed list system. This is a major challenge.
Finally, there is the issue of hydrocarbons. For quite some time now the Iraqi government and ourselves have identified a hydrocarbon law as a key national priority. The full advantage of Iraq’s extraordinary hydrocarbon resources will never be realised to the benefit of the Iraqi people without a modern hydrocarbon framework law. We understand the debate between Iraqis on the issue of the type of law and the relationship between the centre and regions but a balance must be struck in a way that benefits all Iraqis.
During his recent trip to the Gulf, the [American] President [George Bush] made clear that decisions on the level of US forces in Iraq will be based solely on the developments on the ground and on the recommendations provided by General Petraeus. We see significant progress in security and we want to make sure that the right structures are in place, including the support provided by our forces, to sustain that progress.
Over the course of 2008, we will be negotiating a long term strategic relationship, a security partnership, with the government of Iraq, which will, by the end of this year, supplant the Chapter 7 (of the UN Charter) mandate which now provides the basis for the Multi National Force in Iraq and for our presence in that country. This is a very important step. In late 2007, we and the Iraqi government agreed upon a Declaration of Principles which lays out where we wish our strategic relationship to go not only in security issues but also in economics, social, culture, and scientific matters. We will be moving ahead on all of those different subjects as we speak as a sovereign nation to a sovereign nation as early as possible this year but no later than December. We will make the arrangements for our long term presence in the country after the UN mandate ends.
Q) Have negotiations begun regarding this strategy?
A) No. We are hoping that negotiations will begin in February.
Q) There are concerns in Iraq that these negotiations would be limited to one side and would not reflect the Iraqi nation as a whole. What is your response to these concerns?
A) This is a critical issue for both of our countries, a national, strategic issue. It requires a national decision, not the decision of any one group or any one individual. The Iraqi government told us recently that in a meeting for the 3+1 (Presidency Council and Prime Minister) that there has been a formal agreement that the Iraqi negotiating team, which is still in the process of being formed, would reflect all of Iraq. It will represent the Group of Five (main Iraqi political parties), and would reflect the input of all the concerned ministries of the Iraqi government. We’re very pleased by this.
Q) How will the United States benefit from such an agreement, especially considering that it has other military bases in the region?
A) First of all, it is appropriate for Iraq as a sovereign nation to negotiate as a sovereign country with the United States, or with other members of the Coalition should it choose, to establish a basis for a continued presence and mission in Iraq that can be presented to the Iraqi people and to the world as a sovereign decision and not imposed from outside.
The fact remains that in the long term, a different relationship is necessary based on a different foundation that respects Iraq’s sovereignty. What we gain is that more secure, stable, long term footing for what we believe, what the Iraqi government believes, frankly our partners and allies throughout the region believe an essential central US presence in Iraq is complimentary to the US presence elsewhere in the region.
The region and Iraq both continue to confront many threats. In the case of Iraq, as it moves towards greater stability and security, there is still the need for an assisting presence from US and coalition forces. If one looks at the common threats posed by Iran to the region itself there is a need for a strategic outlook from the part of the Gulf and from the part of Iraq. We want to see Iraq thoroughly integrated into the region with its neighbours. They confront common challenges.
Q) There are fears in Iraq that the country would become a buffer to settle political accounts with Iran. What is your response to these concerns?
A) We do not believe and we certainly do not wish for Iraq to become a “buffer zone” as you called it or a point of conflict or an area of conflict either between Iran and the Arab world or between Sunni and Shia. We do not believe this should be the future of Iraq and we do not believe such an outcome would be of advantage to Iraq, the region as a whole or to the United States and so we are certainly working to see Iraq emerge as a sovereign and secure nation with good relations with all of its neighbours.
Q) With respect to Iraq’s other neighbour, Turkey, is the United States doing enough to protect the Kurds?
A) I was recently in Ankara and I had discussions with the Turkish political leadership. The Turkish government, I believe, is quite appreciative of the support provided by the United States over the course of the past several months in a common challenge against the terrorist threat posed by the PKK [Kurdish Workers Party]. We are determined, working with the government of Iraq, the Kurdish regional government and the government of Turkey to decisively confront the threat posed to all of our interests. Many things are required from each side in order for an ultimate end to the PKK terror threat to be achieved. Certainly from the standpoint of security measures the best possible cooperation and coordination between the United States and the Turkish government is required and we are committed to providing that coordination and cooperation. But the ultimate resolution of this issue will require a comprehensive approach that includes military measures but which also includes other steps that ultimately make it possible or should make it possible to constrain the PKK and then eliminate it as a terrorist force. This has gone on for too many years; too many innocent Turkish citizens have died and indeed Kurdish citizens have died as a consequence of this violence along with those who have suffered as a result of the dislocation that the PKK has compelled and it needs to be brought to a halt.
Q) What about the Kurdish Regional Government?
A) The Kurdish Regional Government has adopted several measures in constraining or containing the ability of the PKK to access support. Those actions need to be continued and they need to be enhanced and there needs to be no ambiguity whatsoever on the part of the Kurdish Regional Government leadership that the PKK is a terrorist organisation that poses a threat to the people of the Kurdish region just as it poses a threat to Turks.
Q) Many questions are being asked about the role to be played by Iraq’s neighbours. Has there been any development in this regard especially during the recent visit by American President George Bush to the region?
A) It is very important that Iraq receives the support of its neighbours as it moves forward towards greater stability, security and peace. Arab neighbours of Iraq have a critical role in helping to support that stable, secure and peaceful Iraq. During the President’s recent visit to the Gulf and to Egypt, he personally reinforced the message that the greater positive involvement of Iraq’s Arab neighbours in this process of stabilisation was important as sovereign state to sovereign state. The President shares the concern of the Gulf regarding the threat posed by Iran. The best way to address this threat in the context of Iraq is by building strong constructive relationships by establishing a diplomatic presence for Iraq’s Arab neighbours in Iraq. Right now, other than the United States, the largest presence of a foreign state in that country is Iranian; that should not be the case.
With respect to Iran, the United States is ready, as we have been for some time, to conduct talks in Baghdad on security issues related to Iraq. We are awaiting an Iranian response to what is a US and Iraqi offer because these talks are trilateral.
We continue to see Iran’s behaviour in Iraq as threatening to Iraq’s security and stability. We continue to see a flow of lethal weapons and lethal training to violent elements within Iraq and this obviously needs to come to a close.
Q) But there have been contradictory reports that state that there has been a decrease in the number of weapons entering Iraq from Iran whilst others claim that there has been an increase. What is your response to this?
A) There has been no change that I’m aware of in our judgment over the past several months that the provision of arms and the provision of training has not significantly diminished. The number of explosively formed projectile (EFP) attacks on US forces has gone up over the course of the last month or so. Whether or not violence by Iranian-backed groups that continue to be supplied and trained has or has not gone down is an issue for debate.
Q) How would you describe your relations with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki?
A) We support the Prime Minister as the democratically chosen leader of a national government committed to a national reconciliation agenda. We support him in the context of his work with Iraq’s other leaders, the presidency council; [President] Jalal Talabani, [and Vice Presidents] Adel Abdul Mehdi, Tariq al Hashimi and the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. Collectively, they work to advance the national agenda to which they agreed upon last August. We have good relations, close relations with all members of the Group of Five but our message to them all is that for Iraq to move forward on the vital political reconciliation track they must work together and they must form a critical mass of consensus on vital issues such as the issue of Debathification, the pension law and upon the provincial powers law, a provincial elections law, holding national elections…
There has to be a national consensus on how reintegration into the life of the state, either civilian or military, of the so-called popular committee, which we call concerned local citizens will take place. How the Iraqi government reaches out to those who in violent conflict with the government and coalition forces but have now turned their sight to Al Qaeda, how does the government bring them in? These are all issues that require a national consensus to be formed and to become operational and time is short, it’s a priority.
Q) There is often talk of a “Plan B” and of changing government; is that a viable option?
A) We have made very clear, at the level of the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, reflecting the strong view of the US president that the focus of Iraq will be the 3+1, the Presidency Council plus Prime Minister Maliki, needs to be about making this government work, not about changing the government.
Q) Will changes be made to US policy in Iraq following the American presidential elections?
A) I don’t have a political crystal ball and I obviously would never speak for the decisions which may be taken by the next president of the next administration; I can however speak about the political direction for the current administration which has another year in office. We are determined to pursue the goal of a more stable, more secure, more peaceful Iraq, better supported and part of its region that is able to contribute to the global fight against terror and the regional fight against terror and violence.
Q) With respect to Kirkuk do you expect a consensus to be reached?
A) The US view of the issue of implementation of Article 140 of the constitution often called the Kirkuk Resolution (but it has a broader potential scope than simply Kirkuk) is that resolution of this issue should reflect a consensus amongst all of the affected parties. A unilateral resolution or attempt at resolution which has the effect of dividing and increasing tension is certainly not desirable or accepted but the ultimate resolution of Article140 should be a resolution that builds unity and that reduces tension and violence not the opposite. That is our position.
With respect to the process to take the resolution to that point, we are very pleased at the significantly more active role that has been played by the United Nations through the agency of UNAMI, the United Nations Assistant Mission for Iraq, and its new special representative Secretary General Staffan De Mistura.
There is an internal date, a working date that has been set for bringing this to conclusion but our view would remain that what is important here is not arbitrary dates; what is important is a process that contains substance for all sides and that over whatever period, there is a resolution which is agreed upon by all of the affected parties.
Q) Is there still a warrant for the arrest of Muqtada al Sadr?
A) It is not a relevant issue in Iraq politically but my understanding is that there has never been a change in the status of that warrant. I cannot speak for Muqtada al Sadr’s motivations or ambitions. What I can say is this; the Coalition, the Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces have all been working with leaders of Jaish al Mahdi who have been willing to move away from violence towards a peaceful dialogue as we have been discussing national reconciliation throughout this past period with members of the Sadrist movement. Whether Muqtada al Sadr himself chooses to become part of this positive political process, I can’t say. That is for him to decide.
Q) One of the key issues relating to reconciliation is related to the sentences for the guilty parties in the Anfal trial. What is the American position on the sentence of execution for the former Defence Minister Sultan Hashim?
A) Our view is a very simple one; when there is a formal decision communicated to us that reflects a unified decision of the government of Iraq we will abide by that decision. At the present time there is no such unified decision, there are conflicting instructions. It is for the government of Iraq, the office of the Prime Minister and the Presidency Council to reach a single decision on this issue and communicate it to us.
Q) We are approaching the five year anniversary of the Iraq war, what do you feel is the priority for Iraq and did you think Iraq would be where it is now?
A) The highest priority for Iraq especially over the year ahead will certainly be to move forward the process of national dialogue, national reconciliation, to find a way to secure and make permanent, to make irreversible the progress that has taken place over the past period especially regarding security. Only a political process can do that and political dialogue can do that. What it means to be Iraqi needs to be defined and the answer must be an Iraqi national answer, not an answer imposed or dictated by any one group or in conflict with other groups but a national answer.
Q) You spoke about the positive developments that have taken place in Iraq, are you optimistic that Iraq will get through this difficult stage?
A) I am cautiously optimistic based upon what I have seen achieved over the past year. Over the year ahead, progress will continue to be made, not only on national security or economic issues but on the very challenging questions of political dialogue.