Interview With US Ambassador to Iraq: "The Next Six Months Will Be Critical"

The US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, discusses Washington's departure from its overly ambitious goals, the ongoing acts of terror being committed by insurgent militias, Tehran's efforts to force its will upon its neighbor and the "horrible mistakes" that were made during reconstruction.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ambassador, your boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has admitted that "thousands of tactical errors" were made in Iraq. President Bush has said he regrets the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. What do you think has been America's biggest mistake?

Khalilzad: In my job I do my best to look forward. Historians will have some big questions to address: Was it a good idea to hand over control to the occupying forces after the war ended, instead of placing our bets on an Iraqi government from the very start -- the way we did in Afghanistan? Was it the right thing to do, disbanding the military and driving so many members of the Baath Party out of their positions? Did we wait too long to involve the Sunnis in the political process?

SPIEGEL: Things could be getting even worse now. US Marines are alleged to have shot 24 civilians, including children, in cold blood in the western Iraqi city of Haditha. Can you imagine what the consequences will be?

Khalilzad: I don't have enough information at this point, and I'm waiting to hear what our military officials have to say. But we regret the loss of every human life. Abu Ghraib taught us that these kinds of incidents are devastating.

SPIEGEL: America's declared goal in invading the country was not just to bring democracy to Iraq, but also to modernize the entire Middle East. Hasn't this been an all-out failure?

Khalilzad: I consider the modernization of the Middle East the central challenge of our time. This region behaves as if it were disturbed, if you'll excuse the clinical expression. Most of the problems with which the United States, Europe and Asia are confronted today originate here. The task of helping the Middle East is of similar importance to the containment policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I don't believe that military intervention is always the right approach. What we need is a comprehensive strategy, one that advances democratization, economic reforms and equal rights for women.

SPIEGEL: The outlook seems dismal at this point. The radical Islamic group Hamas was voted into office in Palestine, while other autocratic regimes -- Egypt, for example -- aren't the least bit interested in reform. The aspirations of Lebanon's democrats are also fizzling. So where is the positive effect of the Iraq intervention?

Khalilzad: We Americans are always so impatient. Sometimes progress takes a while.

An Iraqi soldier stands guard at the site of bomb blast in central Baghdad on Friday, 02 June 2006. Two bombs hidden in plastic bags went off at the market, killing 4 civilians and injuring 32.
DPA

An Iraqi soldier stands guard at the site of bomb blast in central Baghdad on Friday, 02 June 2006. Two bombs hidden in plastic bags went off at the market, killing 4 civilians and injuring 32.


SPIEGEL: In other words, there have been no concrete successes to date?

Khalilzad: Take Libya, for example. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the operation in Iraq played a role in that country's change of course. Besides, a number of Arab countries are now holding elections. Of course, we have no control over their outcome -- look at Hamas.

SPIEGEL: Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that the West simply has to get used to the fact that Islamist regimes will be voted into office in the Middle East.

Khalilzad: Not necessarily. If we had free elections in Pakistan, for example, I'd wager to predict that the religious parties would not win. It was the other way around in Iraq, where the Islamists made gains in the last elections. Today we're seeing fundamental conflicts within political Islam, with the fundamentalists on the one side and the moderates on the other. Who gains the upper hand means a great deal to the world. Besides, many Islamic movements will change as soon as they gain political responsibility. I'm not at all pessimistic in this regard. Just think of Turkey, where the Islamists are now behaving like a sort of Christian Democratic party in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Shortly before the war began, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "I am not convinced." Who was right?

Khalilzad: That isn't important anymore. We're dealing with such enormous problems today that we have no other choice but to work together. If Iraq fails, if a religious civil war breaks out and the neighboring states are drawn into this conflict, if the Kurds declare independence and al-Qaida takes over an entire province -- that's when the consequences will be dramatic.

SPIEGEL: What poses the greater threat today -- the insurgency or religious strife?

Khalilzad: It's a vicious circle. The terrorists want civil war. Al-Qaida is attacking Shiites. The Shiite militias are taking revenge on the Sunnis. And the Sunnis are become more extremist, with some joining al-Qaida. There's even evidence of splits within the ranks of the insurgents. Some are joining terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, some feel an urge to enter politics and others are taking a wait-and-see approach. All of these issues can only be addressed in context: the problem of the insurgency, the militias, internal reconciliation. I'm pleased to note that this is precisely what the new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has recognized as his greatest challenge.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and new Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) meet at the Iraqi Prime Minister"s office in Baghdad last month.
REUTERS

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and new Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) meet at the Iraqi Prime Minister"s office in Baghdad last month.

SPIEGEL: The Iraqis have heard these kinds of promises every time a new government has come into power.

Khalilzad: This is different. This time the Sunni Arabs are cooperating. That's an absolute prerequisite, but it still doesn't guarantee success.

SPIEGEL: How much time does Maliki have?

Khalilzad: The next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war. If the government fails to achieve this, it will have lost its opportunity.

SPIEGEL: Many Iraqis are deeply concerned that religious zealots, both Sunnis and Shiites, have the most power in the new government. In the Ministry of Transportation, all women, even Christians, are now being required to wear headscarves.

Khalilzad: I share this concern. Especially in the last administration, cabinet ministers had a tendency to treat their ministries as personal fiefdoms and funneled budget funds directly to their parties. This time we're trying to allocate a representative of the other side to each minister. The last election was an identity-based election, with Iraqis voting in line with their heritage and religious affiliation. Hopefully the next election will be more about content.

SPIEGEL: So you don't believe that there will be an "Islamic Republic of Iraq?"

Khalilzad: Certainly nothing like the Iranian model. Together with liberal forces, we have expended a great deal of effort on preventing this from happening. The constitution states that Sharia law is a fundamental source of jurisprudence, but not the only one.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the planners of this invasion even considered these details?

Khalilzad: Not that I know. As far as I'm concerned, I certainly did think about these things, because I was facing the same problem in Afghanistan, where I was previously the ambassador.

SPIEGEL: There are now 130,000 US troops in Iraq, about 20,000 troops from other countries and 250,000 members of Iraqi security forces. Nevertheless, 1,500 people are killed each month. Why can't you gain control over the situation?

Khalilzad: For three reasons. We haven't been able to eliminate the terrorists. Zarqawi and his network remain powerful. Then there are the insurgents, whom we must involve in the political process. Third, we have the problem of having to disband the militias, disarm them and find a place for their fighters. Clearly the fundamental direction is that the Iraqis, step by step, are assuming responsibility for their own security.

SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that the Kurdish Peshmerga militias will voluntarily give up their weapons?

Khalilzad: The Iraqi constitution guarantees regional forces. Which weapons they'll be allowed to carry and what their responsibilities will be still needs to be discussed. The more difficult issue is how we deal with the insurgents, the self-proclaimed resistance fighters. Perhaps some of them -- like the members of the militias -- will eventually be admitted to the security forces.

SPIEGEL: Are you still in contact with leaders of the insurgency?

Khalilzad: We have had some very intensive talks. The insurgents were also waiting for the formation of the new government, and now they're discussing whether their leaders are adequately represented.

SPIEGEL: The United States has denounced Iran for its support of Shiite militias. Of what exactly do you accuse Tehran?

Khalilzad: We Americans have eliminated Iran's worst enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam. I occasionally threatened my Iranian counterpart in Kabul that one day I would send him a big bill for what we did. But, seriously, Iran is pursuing a dual strategy in Iraq. On the one hand, the Iranians, after decades of hostility, are now interested in good relations. On the other hand, they want to keep the country weak and dominate the region.

We can say with certainty that they support groups that are attacking coalition troops. These groups are using the same ammunition to destroy armored vehicles that the Iranians are supplying to Hezbollah in Lebanon. They pay money to Shiite militias and they train some of the groups.

We can't say whether Tehran is supporting Al Qaeda, but we do know that al-Qaida people come here from Pakistan through Iran. And Ansar al-Sunna, a partner organization of Zarqawi's network, has a base in northwest Iran.

SPIEGEL: You yourself proposed direct talks with the Iranian government over the situation in Iraq. Tehran's foreign minister turned down this proposal last week. Does this mean that the initiative is dead?

Khalilzad: We receive new signals from Iran every two weeks in this regard. Iraqi politicians, for example, have told us that Tehran is certainly interested in talking with us. Our position, at any rate, has remained the same.

SPIEGEL: Many Iraqi politicians spent years living in exile in Iran. How strong is Tehran's influence in Iraq today?

Khalilzad: Iran is undertaking a massive effort to expand its influence in southern Iraq. At the same time, that influence decreases the more the political process in Iraq progresses. We've seen how Iraqi politicians are resisting pressure from Tehran, even those who once lived there.

SPIEGEL: Even influential American politicians, like Senator Joseph Biden, are now talking openly about a partition along ethnic and religious lines. Would this be a solution?

Khalilzad: These are questions the Iraqis will have to answer themselves. I don't believe that that's what they want. This isn't the Balkans, where ethnic groups were truly trying to separate themselves from one another. The feeling of being an Iraqi unites all ethnic groups within this country. Even the Kurds, who have traditionally pushed for their own state, see the benefits of the current situation. They enjoy an autonomous status in Kurdistan, while at the same time participating in decisions in Baghdad. But if neighboring states were to push for a partition of Iraq, it would be a horrible mistake.

SPIEGEL: So a unified Iraq after all?

Khalilzad: Why should the Shiites, for example, want to split off?

SPIEGEL: Because they could divide up most of Iraq's oil among themselves.

Khalilzad: But they're already the majority today! The Sunnis continue to see themselves, possibly for nostalgic reasons, as the most influential group and want a stronger central government -- quite unlike minorities in other countries. The circumstances here are far more complex than many people in Washington imagine.

SPIEGEL: The United States has pumped millions into Iraqi reconstruction, money that's apparently evaporated without producing any results whatsoever. What went wrong?

Khalilzad: We already made some terrible mistakes in the planning phase, and besides, we suffer from a devastating security situation. Protecting personnel and property eats up an average of 20 percent of total costs on our projects. We had to quickly reallocate huge sums of money to train police officers. Some projects are only beginning to pay off. In power generation, for example, we will increase capacity from 4,200 to 6,000 megawatts by mid-July.

SPIEGEL: Baghdad had only one hour of electricity yesterday.

Khalilzad: We currently have four hours on average, and plan to increase that to twelve hours...

SPIEGEL: And these meager results don't upset you?

Khalilzad: Oh sure, I'm sometimes furious about it, just ask my people here at the embassy. But you also have to consider that this country is in transition. The infrastructure has been devastated, and we have trouble maintaining the energy supply.

SPIEGEL: The situation in the oil sector, which was actually supposed to finance reconstruction, is especially dramatic.

Khalilzad: Iraq is currently exporting about 1.7 million barrels a day. But here we are also contending with a difficult security situation. And not all neighbors are interested in strengthening Iraq economically.

SPIEGEL: Unlike the US State Department, the Pentagon, which planned this war, has never been interested in the process of "nation building." But this is precisely your principal focus today. Did the diplomats ultimately gain the upper hand over the geo-strategists in the Defense Department?

Khalilzad: Nation building is our central task, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And states, nations can't just be built with military power. Despite all difficulties, it's very inspiring to see how the Kurds, the Arab Sunnis and the Shiites are coming together here, how they're jointly defining the basis on which their state is to be built, the political course this state will pursue and who is to receive which cabinet positions.

SPIEGEL: The early years of the Bush administration were marked by moral rigor and by a military determination to democratize the world. Are we now seeing the return of realpolitik?

Khalilzad: The important thing is to apply one's ideals and one's interests in equal measure. During the Cold War era, the issue was the containment of Soviet influence, and we tolerated many an authoritarian regime as long as they were useful to us in this respect. Nowadays our values and our interests are converging -- especially in the Middle East, because this region finally needs to function properly, both politically and economically. This is the only way to combat the global dangers of extremism. And that doesn't happen from one day to the next.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for speaking with us.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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