I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.
Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.
He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)
Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”
Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”
A wild card in all this remains the role of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran, which have long been stoking the conflict. There have been mixed reports on whether the Iranians and Syrians have tamped down their efforts to destabilize Iraq, with conflicting claims being heard from the Pentagon and State Department.
Crocker was careful to take a middle-of-the-road position, saying, “I’m pretty modest about what I claim to know about Iran.” Crocker continued: “It’s unclear to me how much of what we’ve seen in throttling back of extremist militia activity represents an Iranian effort, how much of it is Sadrist leaders recognizing where good politics lie…. I’m making no assumptions. I’m handing out no certificates of good behavior.” This puts him at odds, seemingly, with some State Department colleagues back in Washington, who have been more effusive in attesting to Iran’s supposed change of behavior.
As for Syria, he said, there are “some indications of lessening numbers of foreign fighters slash suicide bombers coming across the border, but as far as we can tell that still remains the primary conduit for people who do really nasty things out here.”
He pointed out another aspect of Iraq’s foreign relations that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: the unwillingness of Arab countries to send ambassadors back to Baghdad despite the improving security situation. “It is past time,” Crocker said, “for Arab states to step up and be a positive, active influence in Iraq.” At the moment, they prefer to complain from the sidelines about Iranian influence without trying to get into the game themselves.
Crocker ended by saying that Iraqis no longer fear getting abandoned by the United States: “At the most fundamental level, there is a view that things are moving in the right direction, that security is improving, that the surge has worked, that Iraqi forces are more numerous and more capable, and therefore why on earth would we abandon a winning proposition?”
Good question. It’s one that some of the presidential candidates who are advocating a rapid drawdown of American forces should answer.