The congressional hearings on the situation in Iraq are over, and President Bush will speak to the country Thursday night. He is expected to embrace the recommendation for a drawdown of some 30,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer.
But by even the most optimistic assessments of the war in Iraq, progress is slow and gains are fragile.
That was the message implied Tuesday by Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, when answering a question posed by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
"What is your degree of confidence that the [government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] will begin to do the things that we've been asking them to do for a long time?" McCain asked.
Crocker responded that his level of confidence is "under control."
In an interview from the State Department Wednesday with Melissa Block, Crocker clarified that statement by reiterating the difficulties and challenges faced by the Iraqi government. And he says he sees signs of hope, as provincial authorities and the central government begin to work together.
What did you mean by "My level of confidence is under control"?
The Maliki government has faced a number of challenges trying to formulate legislation, particularly on the benchmarks, and move those to the Council of Representatives. This will continue to be difficult — not because the prime minister is not making an effort, but because these are hard issues that require a lot of hard work and compromise that has been difficult to get in the current environment in Iraq.
I think everyone accepts that this is hard work, but is Prime Minister Maliki the right man to do that job?
As the president has said, he considers the prime minister a good man with a very difficult job.
A Sunni lawmaker, Salim Abdullah, talked to our reporter Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad about your testimony before Congress, and he said that your testimony glossed over real political problems — including political parties' boycott of the government. (Listen to that story)
Iraq faces any number of problems and, indeed, crises. The decision by [a coalition of Sunni Arab parties], which I presume Mr. Abdullah is referring to, to withdraw its ministers from the Maliki Cabinet at the beginning of August has certainly presented, yet again, a fresh challenge to the government. But, the government continues.
What do you make of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which says the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months?
I'm not entirely sure what that is based on. Again, the government faces significant challenges, including its own composition. At the same time, they do continue their executive role. One example of that was the decision, by the prime minister and the Cabinet, to provide substantial, additional resources to the province on Anbar. So, again, an important decision by the government, and a step of some significance [regarding the] entire reconciliation effort.
So you would say the assessment of the intelligence community is at odds with what you're seeing on the ground?
I think that the government clearly is going to face challenges. It has faced them over the six months I've been there. I am certain it will continue to face them through the next six months and beyond. Whether that means that the position of the government becomes more precarious or not, I really couldn't predict.
We've heard a lot about gains made in Anbar province, a mostly Sunni province of sheikhs there splitting with insurgents, siding with the United States. As provinces like Anbar gain more power, do you run the risk of splitting the country apart?
This is an important question. The new Iraq is established as a federal republic, so the supposition here is that there will be a degree of decentralization. One of the important issues the Iraqis have to resolve is just how much, and that's where the debate on provincial powers comes into play. The issues are as serious as they were in our own states'-rights debates many years ago. What I think we've seen in Anbar, though, is both an assertion of responsibility and authority by provincial authorities, but also efforts by both the province and the central government to link up together.
If you look throughout Iraq, obviously the Kurdish population in the north, which has had some degree of autonomy for many years, Shiite population in the south, which is asserting its autonomy as well, do you accept on some level that Iraq is becoming a de facto partitioned state — call it "soft partition," whatever you want — it is essentially fracturing along sectarian lines?
I don't see it as fracturing. I see, again, a form of federalism, but I also see the clear intention on the part of senior figures from all three communities to maintain a connection to the center and, in some important respects, to be part of that center.
One thing that did not come up in your testimony was the displacement of Iraqis. By one estimate, 100,000 Iraqis a month have fled their homes since the [buildup of U.S. troops] began, and essentially, going to areas where they find their own sectarian groups — Shiites fleeing to Shiite areas, Sunnis to Sunni areas. Doesn't that contribute to this notion of Iraq dividing itself?
The problem of displacement is a serious one — both the numbers of people already displaced and the fact that in some areas, displacement still continues. I think the surge has made a substantial difference in reducing those flows, but they need to be stopped, and then, over time, reversed. Very significant parts of the country and, indeed, of the city of Baghdad itself, remain mixed communities. I think it's important that we and the Iraqis make every effort to ensure that those communities maintain their current composition.
Do you see any progress on that?
I do, actually. I think the surge has gone a considerable distance to stabilizing conditions in Baghdad, and as conditions stabilize, I think the displacement rates diminish.
Just one last question: There has been a lot of buildup to this week's testimony from yourself and from Gen. David Petraeus. Is there a sense of relief as you head back to Baghdad?
As I mentioned at one point in the testimony, after going through 17 hours of hearings, Baghdad is actually looking rather good. But it was, actually, a privilege and an honor to be part of the American democratic process, and to have a chance to reflect that even while one is in the hot seat, the fact that we have these institutions and that we have these processes is what makes this the great country we are today.
This transcript includes minor edits for clarity.