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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 February 2008, 14:46 GMT
Interview: US Iraq envoy Ryan Crocker
BBC Baghdad correspondent Jim Muir interviewed the US ambassador in Iraq Ryan Crocker. This is the full transcript of the interview.

Jim Muir: Nobody doubts the improvement in the current security situation, but what is definitive or irreversible about it?

Ambassador Ryan Crocker: Well I think we have to be realistic about what we're dealing with here. There has been considerable improvement. We can see how that positive momentum can be further built on. But at the same time, we've got to be clear - I don't think there's anything that's not reversible. This could all go bad again, in a lot of different ways, if we lose focus, if we lose commitment, if the unknown or the unthought-of intrude their way into the scene. So again, I think we can be pleased with the progress that's been made, and I know the Iraqis are, but that definitely should not make us complacent.

JM: To sustain this, you really need to keep the troops here for some time after the drawdown of the surge ends in July - you're talking about having a period of assessment. You're in election season back home now. Are you worried that someone may emerge from that, committed to a timetable for withdrawal, rather than a conditions-based withdrawal of US troops?

RC: I have said all along - I said it in September and I've said it since - that as the American representative out here, I look at things in terms of conditions. What are the conditions in Iraq, how does that affect our deployments and what we do, how are those conditions likely to develop? Iraq is complicated. Iraq is hard. I think it makes it very hard and not really advisable to look more than say six months over the horizon. That's about the limit of rational planning. The president made decisions in September that will take us down basically to pre-surge levels by July. I believe that we will continue to draw down, but at this stage, I can't really say yet what the pace and the timing of the further drawdown should be. I think they will come, but we've just got to be very careful here. A lot has happened. We need to be sure that our actions continue to help stabilise the situation and don't inadvertently destabilise it.

JM: What do you think would be the consequences of were there to be kind of a precipitate, doctrinaire timetable withdrawal, without taking into account the kind of conditions you're talking about?

RC: That's why I've always attached such importance to looking at the conditions, making your decisions from that starting point. Of course there can be other starting points. Simply a timetable that is laid out without regard to those conditions - your risk then goes up substantially. If you take conditions on the ground away, then you don't really have a construct for what happens next. And that to me, from where I sit, is taking on an unacceptable degree of risk.

JM: So it could risk chaos, it could risk civil war?

RC: Well it goes back to your first point - have events progressed to the point of irreversibility? No, they haven't. For all the progress that has been achieved over the past year, there are still strong sectarian tensions, there's still an al-Qaeda presence, there is still foreign interference especially from Iran. All of these things could spark a new cycle of instability and violence if we're not very, very careful and very closely linked with the Iraqis on what the next steps should be.

JM: Let's look at the al-Qaeda situation. It's been clear that the struggle here with al-Qaeda has a global dimension, it's part of a much broader struggle. Do you feel that the battle here is on the way to being won, and would that have big regional consequences?

RC: I think there has been very substantial progress clearly against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Look at where al-Qaeda was a year ago and where they are now. They've been badly hurt. They're on the defensive. At the same time, they are equally clearly not defeated. And that's again why we've got to be careful about next steps. If conditions deteriorate again, it gives al-Qaeda more space. If sectarian violence picks up again, then al-Qaeda is able to position itself as the defenders of the Sunni community. They are determined to survive and they are determined to gain ground if they possibly can. And we have to be sure we simply do not give them the opportunity because this is not simply isolated in Iraq, it is part of the global struggle, the global War on Terror. Al-Qaeda has a lot of aims and objectives. One of them clearly has been to take permanent root within the Arab world, within the Arab Umma. They were very close to that a year ago. They're now some distance removed. But I'm convinced that remains a primary aim for the entire global organisation. Therefore it must be a primary objective of ours to deny them that.

JM: There's a kind of indefinable issue, and that's the state of readiness of the Iraqi armed forces. Is that just a question of numbers or are we talking about the more indefinable things like morale, national commitment, the fact that at the centre you have this weakness of legislation, lack of feeling that politicians are puling together for one nation. Is that one of the issues when it comes to looking at the Iraqi military and whether they're ready to fill the vacuum when your forces go?

RC: It's a combination of course of all of those factors. Numbers clearly are important, and it's worth noting that in 2007, while the international focus was primarily on the American surge, our 30,000 additional troops were more than tripled by the additional forces that the Iraqis put into the fight in the course of the year, over 110,000. Though numbers are important, numbers are not the whole story here. The quality of forces and their training are key; their sustainability is key. The emphasis that we and the Iraqis have had has correctly been on the operational end. Now what they have to do is make progress on sustainability - the ability to sustain their forces independently in combat conditions, something they're working on, something that they clearly have a long way to go with. In terms of reliability, morale, professionalism, there too I think, they have made considerable strides. The performance, especially of the army, in the combat operations of the past year has been quite impressive. They've been fighting and dying at rates far above our losses, and they have stayed together. Again, this is going to take further attention. And finally, your point is exactly right - the military doesn't exist independently of the society it protects. It is part of that society, so further political progress is going to be important for the development of the military itself. I'm encouraged by what we've seen over the last few weeks, but that has to continue, both for the reconciliation process broadly, but also to give the military the context in which it can be a professional and responsible force.

JM: The British forces are on the way out. Do you feel in a sense let down by the British?

RC: Absolutely not. I was in Basra a few weeks ago, and had the opportunity to consult with the general officer commanding there, as well as with the Iraqi leadership in Basra. And it is quite clear to me from those discussions, that, while Britain has gone to what we call overwatch status in Basra and indeed in the rest of the south-east as provinces have reverted to Iraqi control, they have a significant and substantial role. We saw that very clearly during Ashoura when, as you remember there was a rising in Basra by a militia group called Soldiers of Heaven. That was put down by Iraqi security forces, but it was clear in my discussions that the British presence at the air station, the advice that British officers were able to give, and the use of British air at a critical moment in the battle, to overfly the militants, were very important in giving the Iraqis the sense of purpose and that they were supported, that allowed them to carry the day there. Britain has been good ally since the beginning, they are a good ally now, and my own view is that that presence in Basra matters, and I very much hope to see it carried forward into the future.

JM: You're about to start negotiations with the Iraqi government on a long-term strategic relationship of one sort or another. What are you looking for as the general headline of that deal, what kind of a relationship are you looking for?

RC: We're looking for a stable, long-term relationship based on some common understandings. A major component of the agreement clearly is going to be in security terms. But the Iraqis have also been very definite that they want this agreement to be a broader construct that defines our relationship in non-security terms in the political and the economic in the cultural in the educational fields. So all of that will be on the table. In terms of what we emerge with, that's why you have a negotiation. I expect that as we go through this, in the weeks and months ahead, that some of our starting premises will be altered on both sides. That's expected, that's healthy, and that I think will lead at the end of the day to an agreement that the leaders in both countries can then have reference to as a construct for how we order our relations in the future. What it will not do - not for the Iraqis, not for the Americans - is in any way limit the ability of leaders in either country to make decisions based on circumstances as they emerge. For example, there will be nothing in that agreement that would commit this or a future American president to a given set of troop levels or a fixed mission or set of missions for those troops while they're in country. So both governments will preserve full freedom of action but it will be within a construct that sets out what both countries expect from the relationship.

JM: Would you see this in broad general terms as drawing Iraqi firmly into the American orbit, in a way that might aggravate neighbouring Iran, which of course has a very strong interest in what goes on here?

RC: I think that's a construct that we all used back in the days of the Cold War frankly with some very mixed results. It certainly worked with Nato, it manifestly didn't with the Baghdad Pact and the Central Treaty Organisation, so I don't think we necessarily want to think in those terms or try and repeat those constructs. We see this as a bilateral negotiation. Iraq as a pivotal country in the region is obviously going to be looking at its position here, its neighbours, its long-term regional interests, as it approaches these negotiations, and we would not expect them to do anything that would make their long-term position in the region in which they must live, more difficult than it has to be.

JM: So it wouldn't necessarily be red rag to the Iranian bull?

RC: Well again I think at the end of the day, where Iraq and Iraq's neighbours need to come out is in a position of some mutual understanding. You know better than most the modern history of Iraq. Iraq has been a source of difficulty and instability in this region for a good 45 years and Iran has often borne the brunt of that. I think the kind of Iraq that we're all looking for, Iraqis themselves foremost, the peoples of the region and the international community is a stable, secure, democratic Iraq at peace with its own borders - within its own borders and at peace with its neighbours. And that should be in the interest of all of its neighbours including Iran.

JM: Now it's no secret that the US and Iran have problems at the moment, and they are in a way being reflected here. Is it actually possible to settle Iraq - to stabilise Iraq - without a broader understanding, a strategic understanding of some sort between the US and Tehran?

RC: I certainly hope it is, and it's on the premise that it is that we agreed to talks with the Iranians about security in Iraq last spring. We have been ready for some time for another round of those talks. The Iranians keep finding an excuse not to sit down. I must say I hope that does not in any way indicate a position on their part that things can't get better in Iraq until there is some global understanding with the United States. Because the reality is while we may be able to make some progress on Iraq, the differences between us globally are such that no rational person could expect a near-term solution.

JM: You are supposed to be having these talks with the Iranians, have they actually got anywhere?

RC: Well, we've had just a few rounds and we really have not sat down with them for some months now. When I went into these talks, I did not do so in the expectation that they were going to be swift, measurable results. I do think that the talks are worth pursuing, again, being pretty modest about expected accomplishments. But simply to be able to sit face-to-face and weigh out concerns and issues with respect to security in Iraq I think has value.

JM: Now, you've got this rather big visit coming up from the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first major presidential figure to visit this country since you guys came in five years ago. If he gets a tumultuous reception, is that going to disquiet you?

RC: I think the fact of the visit is not really all that significant. Iran and Iraq are neighbours. They are going to have a relationship, and sooner or later the president of Iran is going to visit Iraq. I think what is important is what the substance is. And I would like to think that a visit by President Ahmadinejad would be an excellent moment for Iran to reassess its own long-term interests in Iraq. They have a policy that says all the right things, support for a stable and secure Iraq, support for democracy in Iraq. What we have seen on the ground is a set of practices that are counter to that policy and, in my view, counter to Iran's own long-term interests here. So if this visit is the opportunity to bring practice into line with policy, then it would be a good thing.

JM: Now, you've got this rather big visit coming up from the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first major presidential figure to visit this country since you guys came in five years ago. If he gets a tumultuous reception, is that going to disquiet you?

RC: I think the fact of the visit is not really all that significant. Iran and Iraq are neighbours. They are going to have a relationship, and sooner or later the president of Iran is going to visit Iraq. I think what is important is what the substance is. And I would like to think that a visit by President Ahmadinejad would be an excellent moment for Iran to reassess its own long-term interests in Iraq. They have a policy that says all the right things, support for a stable and secure Iraq, support for democracy in Iraq. What we have seen on the ground is a set of practices that are counter to that policy and, in my view, counter to Iran's own long-term interests here. So if this visit is the opportunity to bring practice into line with policy, then it would be a good thing.

JM: Do you not credit the Iranians at all for the improvement in the situation? Because roundabout August, Mr Maliki, the prime minister, went to Tehran and he got promises that they would stop supporting militias and at that same time Moqtada Sadr ordered his militia to stand down. Is there not Iranian hand there playing a positive role?

RC: It's difficult to tell what the factors are behind some of these developments. In the case of the stand down in operations announced by Moqtada Sadr at the end of August, for example, we have to remember what immediately preceded that, and those were the attacks by militias associated with him on the holy shrines at Karbala during the Shabanea celebrations, which engendered a very substantial popular backlash from Iraqi Shia, and it may be the Iranians had something to do with the announcement or it may simply be that Sayed Moqtada recognised that these actions were making his organisations extremely unpopular and he took a sound political choice. We do see that support for what are called the special groups appears to continue and that that support comes from Iran. Foreign explosive projectile attacks go up and down. Right now they're running pretty high. So we see some pretty solid evidence that munitions, arms and training from Iran continue to be a negative factor with these extremist militia groups.

JM: Everybody talks about the spread of Iranian influence in the aftermath of everything that's happened. Saddam was a bull rock; he was a bastion against Iran. You got rid of him. Wasn't that a mistake?

RC: Absolutely not. As you look through the world's history since World War II, you're really challenged to find a worse regime in terms of its oppression of its own people and the damage it did in the neighbourhood than that of Saddam. Whatever the challenges we all may have faced since 2003, the end of that regime was a good thing for Iraq, for the region and for the world. And I think, too, though, it's important to bear in mind the realities of this region. Iraq is a state with a strong Arab identity. It wasn't just Saddam, it was Iraqi Shia Arabs who died by the tens of thousands during the Iran-Iraq War protecting their nation. No fifth column ever emerged here. They were intensely nationalistic, intensely patriotic, and I think that remains the situation very much today by which I mean I think there are very definite limits on Iranian influence in Iraq and, again, I think that is something of what we saw in the reaction of Iraqi Shia to violence in August.

JM: You talk about Iraq's strong Arab identity, but there's not a single Arab embassy functioning here at the moment and you have the Iranian president visiting. Haven't you in a way handed Iraq to Iran?

RC: Well, Iraq is not ours to hand to Iran, and I think you'd get a pretty stiff argument from just about any Iraqi even on the presumption that somehow they are now taking their orders from Tehran because they most definitely do not. But you raise important point. Iraq was a founding member of the Arab League. It has always played a major role in Arab affairs for better or for worse. This is a time when I think the Arab states need to look at their interest in a stable Iraq, and they need to be present in a positive way. I think it is very unfortunate indeed that we do not have Arab ambassadors in Baghdad. Conditions here now support that. I have travelled in the region. I have urged Arab governments to step forward. Arab leaders should be visiting. Arab ambassadors should be resident, and Iraq should be encouraged to play a positive and sustained role in the Arab world.

JM: Do you feel now - I mean there's been four years at least of great uncertainty of about what was happening here, of what direction things were going - that things seem to be getting better, do you feel that you are finally on the right track, and is it time to acknowledge that serious mistakes were made during that previous period?

RC: I find that I am kind of fully occupied with my days as they come, meaning I'm rooted in the here and now and I'm looking forward. We've got a lot of great think tanks out there that can consider the lessons of the past. I think that's a valuable exercise, but I'm not going to be the one who's doing it. I'm going to be doing my level best to try to advance things in a positive direction for the future.

JM: But you were here in 2003 and later. Your posture has changed basically, your practice has changed. You are much more down there among the people speaking Arabic, and so on much more engaged and what you could call nation building. Do you feel the Iraqis' attitude to you has changed? In other words, they no longer regard you purely as a problem who should go away but as part of the solution?

RC: I think broadly speaking that is the case, and I think that is a reflection of the successes of the past year. As our joint operations, coalition and Iraqi forces, have brought violence down and kept it down, I think that's given Iraqis the opportunity to take a look at what happened, how it happened, and then where they can go forward.

I try to get out and around as much as I can. And I was down in Najaf just a couple of days ago and had a very warm welcome and found in particular that the Najafis were very pleased that we have a provincial reconstruction team that is returning to Najaf. They want the associations, they want the skills that these teams represent, and I think that reflects broadly speaking in the country a sense that we are working together towards the same goals, that the coalition is bringing some very positive elements into play that will help the Iraqis make lives better for themselves. And what I've really noticed is the expectation that life will particularly be better for their children, and that's what hope is all about.

JM: In a sense, you've taken on the future responsibility of nation building and I think that was rather unclear at the beginning whether you were going to get into that. Can you see a way of disengaging from this? You've got this burden, you've got this - what in was known as "the white man's burden" of taking on this huge task of getting a whole national back together again. Is it something you can extricate yourself from at any stage?

RC: Well, I would give you a slightly different view. I really think at this juncture what we're doing is helping the Iraqis build their nation, and you see that in a number of different ways. For example, on the economic level, budgets, budget execution, the Iraqis are spending their own resources for the benefit of their citizens at an accelerating rate. I'm not sure the numbers are final, but in 2007 we're seeing something like a 60% execution level for the Iraqi budget - that's both national and provincial - against execution rates in 2006 that were less than 30%. So still a ways to go obviously, but they are getting much better at developing and then executing their own budgets with their own resources, and I think that's what this is really about. It's not about us building the Iraqi nation; it's about Iraqis making the commitment, showing the resolve, developing the resolve, developing the skills to do that in their own terms with critical assistance from us that is what is going to make the difference.

JM: When this whole adventure, if you like, began here five years ago, it was widely seen as part of a broader process which would involve or might involve if it were successful a regime change in Iran, Syria, maybe a different situation in Lebanon and so on. Is there still an aspect of that grand design being fought over here, or are your goals, your mission here now simply to stabilise Iraq without any grand design for the region?

RC: Well, as the American Ambassador in Iraq, I again am reasonably fully occupied with developments in Iraq. But what happens in Iraq is not in isolation from the region, and I do strongly believe that if Iraqis are able to build on the progress they've registered so far, if we are able to maintain a role of supporting them in security and in other fields, that the development of long-term stability and security here within a democratic framework is going to have a lasting impact in the region. For me at least I've spent my whole career up until now in a Middle Eastern region that suffered because of Iraqi actions and policies under the Saddam years, whether it was in Kuwait, whether it was Iran, whether it was a subversion that Iraq sought to export to the Gulf states, to Syria, to Jordan. An Iraq that does none of those things that is a force for stability at the same time maintaining a stable relationship with Iran, that transforms the region. This is something that I believe is achievable.

JM: Could you kind of sum up for me as simply as you can your assessment of what have these five years done to Iraq?

RC: I can do it possibly but I cannot do it simply. Iraq is hugely complicated, and the events of the last five years have themselves been very, very complicated. We've seen enormous damage and devastation. The impact of the sectarian violence particularly of 2006, the first part of 2007, cannot be overstated. It damaged the country; it damaged the infrastructure; it damaged society; and it's going to take a fair amount of time to get over that. But on the positive side, I think what we have seen here is extraordinary resolve on the part of the Iraqi people to see things through to a better place. We're seeing refugees return even though conditions remain very difficult, and it's a reminder of the passionate attachment Iraqis have to their own country and to trying to make a better life, again, for themselves and their children.

I have been struck by the attachment Iraqis demonstrate to their relatively new system and institutions. The Council of Representatives, for example, has been through a particularly productive winter term, probably more activity in the six weeks from the beginning of the year until the recess than at any other period before because parliamentarians are taking their role seriously. The ability that is emerging among Iraqis for give and take, I'll give up something here and I'll get something there, that emerged in the last legislative package I think is extremely encouraging.

And finally, I think we're seeing a construct emerge of a federal Iraq that really is impressive to watch where the provinces have real authorities, real responsibilities, budget resources and the obligations that come with that to devise budgets and then to spend wisely for the benefit of the people, all an entirely new phenomenon not only in Iraq but in this region. And it's extremely interesting and extremely heartening to watch Iraqis work through this.

I said that was the final point but I'm an ambassador, I always have one or two more. I sometimes find myself thinking that as horrific as the last few years have been in terms of violence, that perhaps it is out of that crucible that a better, stronger state and society are built. I'm thinking in particular here of the people of the West, the Sunnis of Anbar, who made the incredibly courageous decision with our support, but they were the ones who had to stand up and do it, to say to al-Qaeda we are going to fight you. To do it, to do it successfully to the extent that if you'd been up to Falluja or Ramadi, they are as normal as any city could possibly be, both of them. Perhaps it is only through the process that they went through that you get to the point where you develop the resolve and the courage to take these kind of steps, and it augers well for the long-term future.

JM: I sense from what you're saying you do believe there is a kind of Iraqi identity, a sense of belonging despite the diversity that will survive everything that's been thrown at them?

RC: I very definitely do sense that, and it's been tested in very hard ways, both before 2003 and since. But although some would argue that Iraq is just another one of those artificial states created by the British by drawing lines on a map, Iraqis have an intense sense of their identity as Iraqis and that gives me some real encouragement for the future.

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