Wednesday, September 02, 2009

He needs attention





Chris Hill is the US Ambassador to Iraq. Yesterday he appeared on WBUR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook. Jacki Lyden filled in for Ashbrook. Hill, as usual, showed up late ("shaking into town with the brakes complain" -- Joni Mitchell "Just Like This Train"). We'll start our excerpt moments after he joins the show in progress.

Jacki Lyden: I would like to point out what the most recent caller said: What makes us think that the millions of people who've been driven from their homes in Iraq will ever forgive us because we've made enemies with our bad foreign policy? And I do think it is a question that bears putting to you.

Chris Hill: Well, first of all, I agree with your sort of interim answer that uh there are a lot of nuances to this but uh in a way I also understand what the caller is saying. I mean this has been a very tough six years. I mean we're-we're into the seventh year of this very difficult period and to be sure I think a lot of Iraqis thought that it would go a lot better, thought that uh we would essentially bring America to them and that hasn't been the case. It's been -- it's been very tough. It's been very tough politically. It's been very tough to reconcile various sectarian communities. You know there are many Sunnis who feel that they are the big losers with the demise of Saddam Hussein -- even though they didn't like him he was a Sunni. And then frankly there are Shia who feel that they are winners but they always worry about what comes next. So it's a very nuanced picture but with respect to the view of the United States, that's also very complex there are a lot of Iraqis who feel that it has been such a tough time that, you know, why hasn't the US completely rebuilt this country? Well we have, as you suggested, spent billions of dollars but to just rebuild Iraq or to somehow turn it into something it never was would be costing trillions. So we have really tried to work with the Iraqi authorities, tried to stand up a uh market economy, try to get them to uh have uh a proper use of some their natural resources so they can bring in foreign investors and that sort of thing. So there's no question that progress is being made but it's very slow and it's very frustrating to a lot of people.

Jacki Lyden: I find that in Iraq and Iran too there's always and Steven I would be interested to see what you and David have to say about all of this, there is always that presence of people that you speak to that say I didn't know my own country we didn't know each other. But sometimes after a huge shift in leadership, however it comes about, whether it's deposing Saddam Hussein or revolution, that actors start to jockey for power and to even speak of the Iraqis can be tough because after all 66 million people there isn't monolithic opinion obviously. David?

David Ignatius: Well I-I-I would just like to take the moment to-to ask Ambassador Hill in these remaining months in which the US still has a significant troop presence in Iraq although not in the cities, how do you think we can use that leverage so as to leave behind solid political situation as possible? The hope at the time of the surge was that there would be a political reconciliation and yet I think many observers -- most observers would say that really hasn't happened. Ambassador, what tools can use in this remaining period when we're still there to try to make the outcome as good as possible?

Chris Hill: Well let me say, David, this issue of reconciliation is probably the name of the game. I mean if we can uh get some things uh squared away here politically I think Iraq can have a better future you know. Ironically it's the security situation that hits the headlines, the various hideous bombings that one sees but it's the it's the political situation that I think worries a lot of people because this idea of working together and trying to have some rules of the road for the political process is a bit of an elusive concept here. So to answer your question there are a couple of areas where I think the US can be very active and we are active One is on the internal boundaries the disputed internal boundaries and that's between the Kurdish areas in the sort of north and eastern part of the country and the rest of the country the more Arab parts and there are some really serious is agreements in some very key areas. A place called Kirkuk that actually has a lot of oil but there are 14 other features along that boundary. So we have been working really on a retail basis talking to the communities there but also talking to the Kurdish leadership up in Erbil and the leadership up here in uh Baghdad as well to see if we can find solutions. Now there are thoughts that somehow you can get some grand bargain in the process, you can you know sort out the oil, sort out all of these things and have it all come together. Unfortunately I think it's going to be a more retail business because it's local. Now the US forces have been very active here and I think this is where it's very important in the coming year. As you know, General [Ray] Odierno has been working with the Iraq National Police the Iraqi armed forces along with Kurdish counterparts to see if we can work out some joint-patrol and this sort of thing which I think could be extremely helpful. So I think we are trying to make use of this time during the last year. But I want to emphasize, you know, we have elections coming up and while uh Iraqis may have -- may have not totally embraced democracy they sure have embraced politics and so you know a lot of what is going on right now is various politicians are reaching out into other communities to try to put together a coalition they think can win for them in the parliamentary elections. That's kind of heartening stuff. So recently you had a sort of Shia -- Shia grouping put together. Those are mainly people mainly in the south but interestingly the Shia Prime Minister Maliki put a condition in there that he knew the others would not accept and so he's out there playing a sort of Dating Game with Kurdish partners and Sunni tribal partners so there's a lot of politics going on. That's the good news, the bad news is they sometimes you know don't get to the real homework of uh reconciliation in working some of these problems.

Jacki Lyden: Steven, you had, I think it was you. I saw a quote by I wish I could remember which Iraqi politicians said -- speaking to what the ambassador just said -- that sectarian politics are appealing, sectarian governments fail. Are people discussing that?

Steven Lee Myers: That was Ahmed Chalabi who many people will remember from his role supporting the invasion as part of the Iraqi National Congress. Uh, I-I think he's right and that this touches on what the ambassador just said, they need to translate the political process into governance. And I think that's one of the things we haven't seen very much of I mean there are pockets of stability, as I said before, but you don't really see on a national level the basics being done in terms of electricity or water or cleaning the streets and so forth. Going back to your previous question, I compare it to my previous time covering Russia, and the ambassador has seen this as well I assume in the Balkans, but what you have here is a country that's not just been through war but has been through a transformational period of moving from a dictatorship as Russia did after the Soviet Union collapsed to a new society and I think the violence here has prevented a lot of that still arduous transition from happening in terms of social values the economy the legal system. There's a lot that's involved in moving from dictatorship to democracy beyond just the elections themselves.

Jacki Lyden: We are going to take a few calls here in just a moment but Ambassador, I would like to ask you, based on your intelligence, who do you think is responsible for the August 19th bombings which was the worst in a very long time?

Chris Hill: Well I you know the investigations are very much continuing I'm not sure I want to sort of give you a running tab of an ongoing investigation but there are certain usual suspects here that we are obviously looking at very closely and one of course is this al Qaeda in Iraq -- so-called AQI. Now the government has some theories that it's more complex that you have possible ex-Ba'athist elements You know these are also Sunni who feel disenfranchised from the system but they're not sort of these extreme Wahhabists Sunnis that al Qaeda draws its ranks from. Yet there is you know talk in the analytical community whether they're Ba'athist in al Qaeda or AQI -- I want to stress this is al Qaeda in Iraq, a sort of franchised operation. And there's a lot of you know talk that perhaps they have some know -- tactical putting, you know, putting this thing together. It's really hard to say. What is clear though is that for many people in this country when those terrible bombings took place out came the fingers and pointing at each other. And to be sure there's a time for finger pointing, there's certainly a time to investigate and see what failures there were in the system. But there's also a times, as the United States, as we know very well in the wake of 9-11. There is a time to come together and one hope that that call will be better heard in Iraq. Because, uh, it's a very rough political climate here.

Steven Lee Myers is with the New York Times, David Ignatius with the Washington Post and Post Global. Hill gets credit for alluding to the lack of sense made in al-Maliki's charges of (secular) Ba'athists working with the religious zealots of al Qaeda in Iraq. But it's amazing to listen to him and compare his remarks to those made on Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera (see yesterday's snapshot) where the audience last Friday was informed of charges that Iran was possibly involved. The bombs or the materials are said to have come from Iran (true or not, who knows). And the broadcast did cover it. But Al Jazeera covered Mohammed Abdullah al-Shehwani who handled the intelligence and who quit his post after declaring that Iran was responsible for the Black Wednesday bombings and being greeted with Nouri al-Maliki's rage. (al-Shehwani has now left Iraq.) That's not really going to be addressed by Hill apparently. Even though all of it -- the charges and the counter-charges -- are nothing but speculation. The Washington Post has covered the charges in their reporting and David Ignatius addressed it last week in his column for the paper which included this: "But forensic evidence points to a possible Iranian role, according to an Iraqi intelligence source who is close to Shahwani. He said that signatures of the C-4 explosive residues that have been found at the bomb sites are similar to those of Iranian-made explosives that have been captured in Kut, Nasiriyah, Basra and other Iraqi cities since 2006."

The previous administration wanted war with Iran very badly (as opposed to the current administration which just wants it badly at this point). That doesn't mean that, year after year, Iran gets a pass. Syria's being raked over the coals currently for -- key point often left out -- sticking to the law. When the government of one country wants to extradite someone, they present evidence to the government the person is in. That's how it works. That may be confusing to some since Colin Powell and the Bush administration demanded Afghanistan turn over Osama bin Laden and stated that, at some point after he was turned over, the US would present evidence. That's not how the law works. But the Syrian government is being raked over the coals as Nouri creates an international incident and finger pointing at Saudia Arabia has taken place at well (and made it into US outlets) so the idea that Iran is off limits? No. It's not. And it also needs to be stated that even if there is Iranian involvement, if, that doesn't mean involvement of the Iranian government.

When you declare this country or that country off limits (out of fear that the US wants to go to war with it), it becomes very difficult to have an honest conversation about what is taking place in the world. The broadcast featured Jackie Lyden, Steven Lee Myers and David Ignatius discussing possible Shi'ite on Shi'ite violence and that should have raised more issues. Such as: Is al Qaeda in Iraq going to be the scapegoat forever? Weren't we repeatedly told that al Qaeda in Iraq had been diminished and was a tiny element? (Yes, we were told that, repeatedly in Senate hearings from various military brass.) And haven't we repeatedly been told that al Qaeda in Iraq operates in one region? Remember which region that is? Hint, it's not the centeral region or the northern region and it's not a region Baghdad's in.

To buy the 'conventional' theory being proposed by Nouri and worked by too many in the US press requires that you also declare al Qaeda in Iraq has increased its presence, has added tremendously to its membership and has now expanded into other regions of the country. Of course, how al Qaeda in Iraq would be waived through checkpoints is the stumper. If you've seen the security camera footage of the trucks, there's no way anyone remotely doing their job waived those two trucks through by accident. So the catch all scapegoat of al Qaeda in Iraq really doesn't fit the way Nouri would like it too. Nor is there a reason Shi'ite dominated security forces in Baghdad would waive through Sunnis even for cash.

A Shi'ite 'gang' would be the League of the Rightous which has claimed credit for the slaughter of 5 US service members. Their leader and his brother were in custody but were set free by the US military in June. They were turned over to Nouri who then set them free and started claiming that they were ready to take part in the political process. The group was ready, Nouri insisted through his spokesmodels. Of course, the group also claimed responsibility for the May 29, 2007 kidnappings in Baghdad of British citizens. Five of the two are known to be dead (Jason Swindlehurts and Jason Creswell). Two were assumed dead (Alec Maclachlan and Alan McMenemy) and a fifth (Peter Moore) was hoped to be alive throughout the summer. Today there's a development in that long running story. Apparently to demonstrate that they now want to just be 'political,' the group has turned over another corpse to the Iraqi government. (When the US released the two brothers from custody in June, the group handed over the corpses of Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst.) CNN goes with caution saying it may be the corpse of a former British hostage. Catherine Philip (Times of London) reports the corpse is now in British custody, that UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband does not believe it is Peter Moore's body and quotes him stating, "We cannot yet definitievely confirm either that this is the remains of one of the hostages, or which one." Ben Livesey (Bloomberg News) notes that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a statement through his spokesperson that he was "deeply saddened" and that there would be "no stone unturned in the Government's efforts to secure the release of the remaining hostages." Not stated is that Brown is on vacation (still) and apparently is not willing to actually interrupt his vacation to make a statement directly. No stone unturned? BBC News adds, "BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said it was believed the body belonged to one of the two men [Alec Maclachlan and Alan McMenemy] and, in that sense, the news would not come as a big surprise. Diplomats say the identity could be established within 24 hours, our correspondent added, and the body is expected to be flown back to the UK by the end of the week." Colin Freeman (Telegraph of London) explains, "The men were abducted by gunmen posing as policemen by a group calling itself League of the Righteous, a group of Shia militants. They were recently understood to have been seeking to enter mainstream politics in Iraq, but attempts to release the hostages through dialogue have proved fruitless." The Daily Mail notes that the League of the Righteous had earlier attempted to use the five hostages to broker a release of "nine Iraqi militants" at Camp Cropper (the leader and his brother were two and, again, they were released in June) and that this "is Britain's longest running hostage crisis since Terry Waite and John McCarthy who were held for nearly five years in Lebanon in the 1980s." Nouri is very close with the League and last week Eli Lake (Washington Times) reported that Ahmed Chalabi was as well.

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