By William Murray, for The Long War Journal
Published with permission
The following is a transcript from an Oct. 10, 2008 interview in Baghdad between journalist Bill Murray and Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. The two are linked not only by time spent in Iraq but also as Whitman College English department alumni.
Crocker became Ambassador in March 2007 after spending three years in the same post to Pakistan. He is one of the most experienced diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service, having previously served as ambassador in Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. Crocker joined the Foreign Service in 1971 and expects to retire in early 2009. He is a 1971 graduate of Whitman.
Murray is a contributor to The Long War Journal, which is “dedicated to providing original and accurate reporting and analysis of the war in Iraq,” per its Web site. He was embedded there for two months between June and August 2008 and returned for three more weeks in October 2008. A 1992 graduate of Whitman College, he earned a master’s degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism in 1999. Murray has had more than 30 by-line articles published in major U.S dailies and has published more than 5,000 stories for the Bloomberg News service.
Murray: One of the biggest fears about Iraq currently is whether the central Shia-dominated government can integrate the Sunni-dominated Sons of Iraq program successfully while not abusing their power or causing sectarian violence to flare. Now that we have a provincial election scheduled for early next year, it seems that as long as nothing changes in terms of security we could have elections with very little gamesmanship going on?
Crocker: I think you can safely predict that there will be gamesmanship going on. These elections are important at a number of levels and it’s very good that the election law was passed and a ‘not-later-than date’ set in January. They are important because they are the second round of elections. A single election does not a democracy make, multiple election do. In these elections, the incumbents are going to be fighting for their jobs.
The second way in which they are significant is because of the boycotts surrounding the first provisional election, that left a lot of imbalances in certain key provincial councils in Diyala, Baghdad and Ninawa where Sunnis are dramatically underrepresented. It seems clear that as we approach these new elections, the Sunnis are going to turn out in force.
There will also be issues in the province of Anbar, predominately Sunni — but because of the boycott -- there are political forces in the province that did not contest past elections but will be doing so this time. So you are going to see a lot of positive recalibration going on. It is important that these be, and be seen to be reasonably free and fair elections. We’re working with the United Nations, with the Iraqi Election High Commission and putting measures are in place that will give people a reasonable level of confidence that these elections are legitimate. It’s going to be important going forward and it’s going to be a challenge.
Murray: I understand the period for registration for the election is now closed, but it was clear when I watched it take place in Ninewa that people, especially Sunnis, were registering at a rapid rate.
Crocker: Among the Sunnis and in general among the Iraqis, there is a lot of interest in these elections. I think you are going to see very high turnouts, certainly among the Sunni. The joke is that only about 10 percent of Sunnis voted in the last election, about 110 percent will vote in the upcoming one.
Murray: Can you give a general outline about how the political parties in Iraq will be contesting the election?
Crocker: It’s still early in the process, because the law was just passed about two and a half weeks ago, and I think we’re going to see a period of maneuvering among parties and candidates as they test out the possibility of formal and informal coalitions. Among the Shia, will the Sadrists formally or informally with the Dawa Party or the Supreme Council or neither? How will the Dawa and the Supreme Council, the two major parties among the Shia, enter into any understandings? Among the Sunnis, with the Awakening movements which have organized as political parties, how they will coalesce, will they coalesce, and what possible relationships will emerge between them and the Islamic Party? How will independents take advantage of the system; all of these remains to be worked out. So you will see a lot of political maneuvering and it is too early to tell how that is working.
Murray: You’ve mentioned in the past several weeks how Iran has been impeding progress on the security agreement, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that is being negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq. Did the Bush Administration make a mistake by not guaranteeing Iraq’s foreign borders and making a choice -- by not having the agreement go through Congress -- that has allowed Iran to manipulate the discussions?
Crocker: I’m not sure I see a direct connection. The agreement is still under negotiation. We’ve been clear at the outset that this is an executive agreement and not a formal treaty, so there are not going to be these guarantees that would trigger treaty provisions. The Iranians don't want to see any kind of agreement. What they are driving for is an abrupt departure of U.S. forces and the only interpretation we can give to that is that they are seeking destabilization.
Their stated policy is very close to the American policy — support of a stable security, democratic Iraq under the rule of law. Their actions are contrary and I can conclude from their actions, and especially their opposition to an agreement that would provide a legal basis for our troops after Jan. 1, that they are seeking instability here. They want a weak Iraq that is off-balance, that is dealing with significant security problems, because it's somehow in their best interest. This is beginning increasingly clear to Iraqis. You could argue that the more Iran pushes in opposition to an agreement, the more there is push back among Iraqis — you’ve seen this from statements by Iraqi President Talabani and other Iraqi leaders — deep resentment of Iranians telling them what they should do in a negotiations that doesn’t include Iran.
Second, increasingly we have seen what the consequences for Iraq will be if there isn’t an agreement. The Iranians create a lot of difficulties here, but they are essential a self-limiting phenomenon.
In the spring, we had the whole episode with Jaish al Mahdi (the military arm of Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr). The Prime Minister took them on and it was widely seen as taking on not only extremist Shia militias, but the Iranian sponsorship behind them. That was pretty popular, not only among Sunnis, but among Shia, who had had it with the militias. And everyone saw Iran as responsible for the arming, training and support of Jiash al-Madhi.
In many ways, Iran tries to deal with Iraq like it deals with Lebanon. But as Iraqis are the first to tell you, Iraq is not Lebanon. They fought a vicious, brutal, eight-year war (with Iran) between 1980-1988 and Iraqis don’t forget that.
Saddam Hussein started that war and Iraqis all know that. Certainly in the governing structure, there are no friends of Saddam Hussein, yet that war is seen as a war between two countries, two states, two peoples, one Arab and one Persian.
I was having lunch with a retired Major General who is involved with the government; he was a Special Forces Officer, a Shia, and as I was asking questions about this battle and that battle, and as soldiers everywhere, he was starting to move silverware around the table to show troop positions, he had this intense pride of fighting for Iraq and fighting for an Arab Iraq against a Persian enemy. That whole history is out there and it doesn’t take too much of a scratch to bring it all back for Iraqis.
When we went through the rocket attacks in March and April which were launched from Sadr City, talking to an Iraqi in this area, the International Zone, he said some interesting things. He said ‘We remember this. This is the War of the Cities. This is the Iranian bombing Baghdad again, just like they did in the 1980s.’
So it is utterly wrong to think that somehow Iran dominates Iraq or could dominate Iraq. When they push beyond what Iraqis are comfortable with, or when they push in ways that Iraqis view as negative, you get a sharp push back.
Murray: Does that mean that the January 1st deadline — how big a deal is the ending of the UN mandate which currently gives the U.S. occupation powers in Iraq?
Crocker: It is important. Iraq has been the subject of a Chapter 7 resolution since 2003. In 2004, when an Iraqi government assumed responsibility, they continued under a Chapter 7 resolution, so the expiration of this resolution will mark a very important step in the history of a new Iraq. And things will be different.
We have to have a legal basis to operate here to do anything, whether it’s actually security operations or to train and equipment, so there has to be a legal basis. The desire of the Iraqis is to move from the Security Council resolution to a bilateral agreement.
We’ve made very substantial progress, I think we’re getting to the endgame, but you don’t have an agreement until you have everything agreed and we’re not quite there yet. It is clear that this agreement is going to create a very different reality. It will affirm Iraqi sovereignty. In every respect in this agreement, Iraqi’s are controlling their own destiny in a way they don’t under the Security Council resolution, so it going to mark an important evolution in Iraq’s development as a state.
Murray: The chances of a decision before Dec. 31 are more than 50 percent?
Crocker: I think we’re going to have an agreement in place by then.
Murray: You arrived in Iraq as Ambassador in March of 2007; it’s now been about 18 months. If you were to rate Iraq right now compared to March 2007 or perhaps October 2006, rating that period perhaps as a 1, as a time of fear and loathing, versus where we are here today two years later, on a scale of 1 to 10, where do you think we are here in October 2008?
Crocker: If it’s a relative comparison, it’s well beyond 10. This is a transformed country since the time I’ve arrived. I will always remember my first visit to a Baghdad neighborhood as Ambassador. It was to Dora and the surge brigade had just moved in to the area. I’d been here in 2003 and lived here in the late 1970s, and walking through the streets of Dora a year and a half ago, it reminded me of Beirut in the 1980s, it was a war zone.
People were afraid to go out in the streets, to the big Dora market, which had only a dozen shops open, out of maybe 400. The residents were afraid to cross the bridge to go to the hospital because they thought the national police at the checkpoint would kill them because they were Sunnis. It was deeply depressing.
Dora is now utterly transformed. Not only are all 400 shops opened, the market has expanded well beyond that and during the commemoration of the birth of the last Shia Imam, tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia walked through Dora on their way to Karbala and were given food and drink by the Sunni residents. Contrast that to a time when if any Shia had tried to walk into Dora they wouldn’t have walked out, period. It’s that kind of transformation that is, to me, utterly striking.
That said, the threats are still there. Al-Qaeda is diminished and in retreat, but not defeated. The Iranians clearly are trying to follow a Hezbollah model here as in Lebanon. The big Jaish al-Mahdi militia model didn’t work for them. That is transforming into a non-militant organization but they are still working with Special Groups that are trained, equipped and directed by the Quds Force out of Tehran and the training is done by Lebanese Hezbollah.
So the Sunni extreme of al-Qaeda, the Shia extreme of Hezbollah-like groups directed by the Quds Force represent real threats to this country and we and the Iraqis are going to have to be absolutely diligent in not letting up and tracking them down and eliminating them.
You also have the challenge of services. A year ago, everybody was talking about security. Nobody worries much about security anymore in most of the country so now they’re all complaining about services. Where is the power, where is the water, where are the job opportunities and the government is going to have to step up to that? They are making progress but there is obviously a very long way to go.
And then there is the question of political evolution. There are lots of strains and pressures in this evolving system and how that evolution takes place is going to determine the future of the country. But there has been enormous progress -- coming back from Dora, putting my head on my desk, wishing I was back in Pakistan, from that moment I never would have hoped that Iraq would have come as far as it has in these 18 months, but there is still a long way to go, so we’re going to have to stay with this.
Murray: You mentioned going to Dora with the surge troops, the extra military units. The expansion of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) is one of your bailiwicks and a success. Are we at a ‘surge’ capacity within the State Department for PRT Teams or is there more the federal government has to offer and what can we expect in the next year?
Crocker: I don’t think we’ll be establishing any more PRTs. We’ve got the country pretty well covered. In terms of staffing levels, we stay very loose and flexible. We’ve plused up staffing at a number of PRTs because improving security condition have more opportunities to do capacity building then there were before, so staffing numbers are going to fluctuate. In some areas we may see decreases as provincial governments demonstrate increasing ability to do things on their own.
Murray: The metrics used to track PRT success can be difficult because unemployment rates and electricity delivered in megawatts are just too broad a measure, so what are some of the things you have used for examples like advances on a budget but shortages in agricultural help? The State Department has to then shop for talent back in the U.S. who need to be convinced to leave their families for a year to work in Iraq.
Crocker: We’ve developed what we call a maturity model that the PRTs use to assess progress in various areas.
Murray: So it’s a progression, in other words. There are things to check off a list and you can look at a province and know where you are?
Crocker: We’re in our fourth evolution of these models so you can start to see trends. And I’ve told people, gild no lily here. We’ve got to be very hard-eyed on this. We don’t do ourselves or the Iraqi any favors by trying to pretend things are better than they are. It is not always going to be one happy path ascending to a sun-dappled upland.
If this is going to be done honestly, you are going to see regressions. I give special brownie points for people who give me the truth about taking steps back. Because with all the challenges out there, it is inevitable that there will be set backs as well as progress. We’re using this fairly effectively to demonstrate where the provinces are going.
Success opens up new challenges and you have to be able to see them and staff them. There are a lot of people in Washington D.C. who are real tired of seeing my number pop up on their phone because I've got to have people to do this, and I have to have them yesterday. We are getting a lot better at that. There are a lot of lessons learned out of Iraq and one has to be, as a government, on the civilian side, how we staff a major contingency.
It isn’t just the State Department here. We have people from the whole federal government, including agencies that aren’t necessarily used to working in foreign environments. We’ve got almost every Cabinet agency in America out here and I’ve been impressed with how they’ve stepped up to this. We have Treasury advisors all over this country helping Iraqis do budgets. When a new Minister of Health really wanted to expand relations with us and when provinces started to stabilize so health issues could get the salience they deserved, we got a tremendous response from the Health and Human Services. The Department of Agriculture has been great.
Murray: Is there a timeframe for when there will be a retail banking system in Iraq?
Crocker: A retail banking system is evolving. You have a number of private banks out there and we’ve worked very hard in introducing electronic banking. There are now ATM machines in Iraq; the first one was about six months ago. Banks are issuing credit cards here. You can get a MasterCard, issued by an Iraqi bank. If you want another example, the Iraq dinar continues to appreciate versus the US dollar
We’re now seeing increasing numbers of transactions and larger transactions done electronically.
Murray: Since this is the election season -- unfortunately it’s been the election season for the past two years -- is there any difference, not just in rhetoric but in reality, between how a McCain administration or an Obama administration will handle Iraq in the next two years?
Crocker: That’s really a great try, William. I’m afraid I’m not going to comment on a Presidential campaign in progress. I think, obviously, whoever wins, and whatever administration is formed, is going to be taking a very serious, detailed and sober look at Iraq. This is a national interest; it’s not a partisan interest. One thing you see when you’ve been abroad as long as I have in this part of world is what a great system we have and how that system carries forward, regardless.
Murray: What kind of political capital do you think the Iraqi government has right now to stay together and grow, with the center holding, if and when the U.S. draws down?
Crocker: The US is drawing down and will continue to draw down.
Murray: You can see it on the Forward Operating Bases. The people you talk to. Their mission is moving things in other directions, transferring ownership, basically.
Crocker: Yep. That’s a great way to put it. It is transferring ownership. Iraq’s leaders want to be in charge of their own destiny. At the same time, they want to do it in a way that doesn’t risk everything they and we have paid so much in blood and treasure to achieve. This will be an evolving process. There will also be an evolving process of what shape this state will be.
You mentioned earlier, will the center hold? It’s not just a security question; it’s also a political question. What is going to be the relationship between the center and the provinces and the Kurdish region? The constitution laid out a frame work, the provincial powers law that was passed last February further refined that but there is still a lot of work to do. The commitment I see from Iraqi leaders is to say, ‘OK, there are a lot of issues here, but we have to solve them peacefully.’ And that’s important, because there are a lot of challenges.
Iraq, throughout its millennial history has been governed from a strong center. It is now a federal state, with significant authorities devolving to the provinces and to the one region that exists, the Kurdish region — the Constitution provides for the creation of other regions.
They balance their own budgets; that was never the case before, it all used to come from the center. There are those that argue that the center needs to be strong. There are those that argue that the center is already too strong and the provinces need more power. These things will take time. It’s just important that the security piece stay solid and that the challenge be managed in the context of peaceful evolution.
Murray: You’ve mentioned that you’re retiring from the Foreign Service soon, but that exit strategies are difficult.
Crocker: I’m in the process of drawing down.
Murray: So timing wise, when do you think that will be and where do you expect to retire to?
Crocker: I expect to leave Iraq early in the New Year. It will be roughly two years in Iraq and since 9/11 it will be five years that I will have been deployed, when you include Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, it’s enough.
Where? Eastern Washington. My wife and I bought property east of Spokane, between Spokane and the Idaho line some years ago, but never had a chance to build on it. We’ll be doing that and look forward to renewing my connection with Whitman College (his alma mater). I’m a member of the Board of Overseers and I’ll welcome finally having the time to pay some significant attention to those duties.
Beyond knowing where I’ll be physically and knowing that I’ve got some responsibilities as an Overseer, all the rest of it I’ll figure out when I’m not doing this anymore.
Murray: Yourself and General David Petreaus are often linked together and probably will be historically; you’re both runners and have run together often. Who’s faster?
Crocker: Oh he is. No question.
Murray: He’s a little younger than you, so there is some dispensation there.
Crocker: Absolutely right.
Murray: You say flat out he's faster, even though you’re slightly different distance runners. He’s more of a middle distance guy, while you’re a marathoner.
Crocker: Early on, it was fairly clear that even though he took it easy on me, he was definitely the better runner. We never really tried it, but I kind of thought that, if you can imagine two old guys running a 440-yard dash, that I might have had a certain early advantage.
Murray: But you guys don’t run together anymore.
Crocker: No, not anymore.