U.S. Ambassador Calls Stakes in Iraq 'Huge,' Warns Syria
By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 12, 2005 The U.S. ambassador to Iraq today called the stakes in that war-torn country "huge," and said the time has come for Syria to decide whether it's in its own best interest to impede Iraq's progress.
In a special briefing at the State Department, Zalmay Khalilzad stressed the gravity of what's at stake in Iraq.
"Iraq is the centerpiece of the defining challenge of our time," he said. "As during the Soviet era, Soviet communism was the defining challenge of our time, now it's terrorism and extremism that's the defining challenge of our time."
What happens in Iraq will affect the rest of the world, the ambassador said. "What happens in Iraq will affect the region, and what will happen in that region will affect us all," he said. "We are all very dependent on the region."
If people like fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the head of al Qaeda operations in Iraq -- were to dominate Iraq, Khalilzad said, "it will make Afghanistan and the Taliban look like a picnic," given Iraq's resources and location.
"So the American public needs to know that what's involved here is huge, as what we did with the Soviet Union was huge, as what we did in World War II was huge," the ambassador said.
The United States wants a democratic, unified, self-reliant Iraq that can look after its own security and become prosperous so it can serve as the model for the broader transformation needed in the region.
"It will take a long time to do," he acknowledged. "Transforming regions such as the Middle East is not easy, but it's absolutely necessary. It's a region of the world that's producing most of the security problems of this era and, therefore, we need to deal with it. And the way to deal with it is to get Iraq right, first, as we work on the other problems of the region too." Progress, Khalilzad said, is evident in the fact that more than 190,000 Iraqis have been trained for the police and military forces. "Positively, too, we see Iraqis beginning to fight for themselves who are not even part of the security forces," he added, citing Sunni tribes that are standing up to Zarqawi's terrorists.
"It's critical for the success of Iraq that Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shiia or Kurd, protect their country, defend their country," he said. "And the sign that I see in these tribes, in Sunni tribes, standing up to Zarqawi, are positive developments."
The ambassador noted that a joint committee of U.S. and Iraqi leaders is working to define conditions for the increased transfer of security responsibility in Iraq to the Iraqis themselves. "We will come to some agreement with them in the next couple of months as to a vision of transfer of responsibility and a plan for transfer of responsibility that will be condition-driven, and we'll make that known to everyone," he said. "But the trend is towards increased transfer of responsibility to Iraqis and a decrease in the security responsibility for the United States and the coalition." Khalilzad noted that foreign fighters continue to make their way into Iraq through Syria - fighters who share Zarqawi's bleak vision for the future.
"The vision of these people, the Zarqawi people, for Iraq is not a democratic, unified, self-reliant, successful Iraq," he said. "It's an Iraq that's very much what we saw in Afghanistan under the Taliban: an Islamic caliphate with a dark vision to take the region back -- where women will not have the right to vote, where there will be no democracy, where there will be a center of international terror in a rich, powerful country."
Syria, he said, is allowing forces who want to prevent Iraq from succeeding, to enter Iraq.
"Our patience is running out with Syria," he said. "They need to decide, are they going to be with a successful Iraq or are they going to be an obstacle to the success of Iraq? Iraq will succeed. ... Syria has to decide what price it's willing to pay in making Iraq's success difficult. And time is running out for Damascus to decide on this issue." Iraq's Transitional National Assembly will vote within a few days on the final draft of a constitution that he called "an enlightened document." Objections by some Sunni Arabs to some language in previous drafts has slowed, but not stopped the process.
"It's a good document," Khalilzad said of the final draft. "As far as the Sunnis are concerned, there are discussions going on with them. I understand their difficulties. Because of the terrorists' threat there, some of the people who support the document cannot say it publicly because they're afraid."
Sunnis largely boycotted the TNA election, Khalilzad said, and now realize that was a mistake. "They are registering (for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum)," he said. "I think the numbers are above 85 to 90 percent of people who are qualified to vote are registering to vote, and that's extremely positive."
Still, he acknowledged, the road ahead will remain tough. "Iraq is going through a difficult transition; that is clear," he said. "It's a difficult transition because the change in authoritarian regime, a one-man rule system, where one man was the constitution to a system where people are deciding for themselves their political system, participating in the process, respecting each others' right, compromising, self-relying more and relying less on government. These are processes that ordinarily would take decades.
"We are in Iraq learning how to crawl, walk and run at the same time," he continued. "We are doing multiple things simultaneously that ordinarily would ... be done sequentially over a very extensive period of time. We're making progress, but there are significant challenges that remain. I believe we have a good plan for how to proceed, and we need to stick with it and resource it."