BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Good morning, and thank you for joining us this morning.
It's my pleasure to have something a little different for you today, and on late notice. Dr. Barham Salih -- he is the deputy prime minister -- is with us this morning. He's actually in Washington to meet with a number of government officials, cabinet members, congressional leaders, and the various business leaders here in the United States. And he met with Secretary Rumsfeld this morning and graciously offered us a little bit of time to talk about what's going on in Iraq and the progress that's being made.
You might recall that he actually did a video teleconference with us back in January of 2005 and -- when he discussed the Iraqi elections.
Your Excellency, welcome and thank you for joining us in person today, instead of on the television screen.
MR. SALIH: Thank you. Thank you. Certainly much better to see you and in person and to talk to you about the developments in Iraq.
I arrived here a couple of days ago. I've been watching television and reading newspapers. I do so from the comfort of my home in Baghdad and browse the Web and watch CNN International. But I did not imagine the level of the debate and the tone of the debate in the United States the way that I have seen it over the last couple of days.
So I welcome the opportunity to give you firsthand experience of what I feel about the situation in Iraq and what our assessment about developments there are.
Obviously, it's wonderful to be in this building and to thank you for the opportunity. It is important for any Iraqi leader to -- or official to come to Washington and to visit this building, to meet with the leadership of this building and to offer through them to the American public and to the U.S. military the gratitude that we all feel about American commitment to the liberation of Iraq, no matter what criticism here and there about the policy. But one thing fundamental for us Iraqis is that the United States has helped us overcome tyranny and gave us the greatest gift of all -- freedom.
It has not been an easy transition over the last two years. Definitely, it has been tough, and we are dealing with many, many tough challenges, but we all have to acknowledge that Iraqis are a lot better off without Saddam Hussein, the region is a lot better off without Saddam Hussein, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.
The difficulties of transition today in Iraq are serious, are grave. But I can tell you from my perspective as an Iraqi and dealing with many, many ordinary Iraqis from across the country, our problems of today are serious, but they pale in comparison to the tyranny and horrors that we had to endure under Saddam Hussein, and that's very important to note.
We have embarked on a monumental project in Iraq about building a functioning democracy in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. This is a part of the world that has not known anything close to representative government or democracy or open debate. It is not easy, yet we are doing it. I am proud to point to important progress that we have achieved over the last two, three years of transition, including two parliamentary elections, provincial elections, and the first popularly ratified constitution in the history of that part of the world.
The painful aspect of this transition is that this is happening at a place where we are at the crossroads of the Middle East. But as I said yesterday at a presentation at Brookings Institution, at the time we are in the crosshairs of international terrorism as well. This transition in Iraq is happening at a time when so many upheavals and changes are taking place across the region. And sometimes when I watch debates here in the United States, as I did over the last couple of days, we are being blamed in Iraq for some of the problems around the Middle East as well, and that Iraq has galvanized the region, Iraq has made matters worse in a way, whereas the reality of the situation -- the many fundamental problems that the region is suffering from are the ones that are burdening the process of transition in Iraq and making transition in Iraq more difficult than it could be.
We are making progress. We are making progress by way of bringing about a more inclusive political process in Iraq and by building security organizations and security forces that will assume responsibility for defending Iraqis and Iraqi citizens against the evil of terrorism and to defend the country.
But, again, this transition is taking place in the context of a tough, tough battle against international terrorists, against remnants of the former regime, against these cross currents from the region, whether it is because of Iran-U.N. dynamics on the nuclear file, because of Arab-Israeli conflict, because of whatever -- a number of these factors -- because of political Islam. These are all cross-currents that impact our transition.
I don't want to tell you that things are rosy in Iraq, they're not. We have difficulties, we have great challenges. The important thing that the mainstream Iraqi leadership are aware of the challenges that are before us and are aware of the imperative of rising to that challenge. At the end of the day, it will be about Iraqi leadership; it is not about American leadership as such, at least from the way that we are seeing it in Iraq. American support and sustaining American support is crucial. But, at the end of the day, Iraqis will have to make the tough decisions in order to make their country more peaceful and deal with the problems that we have.
After the formation of the national unity government, the prime minister, Nouri Maliki, announced a very ambitious and, I daresay, a very courageous, bold move for national reconciliation that outlined a number of key measures that he saw and that we saw in government as crucial to healing some of the wounds that emanated from the past, as well as the difficulties with transition.
Last week, in the national security council, that has in its membership key elected officials of the government, we have agreed on an ambitious timetable that we will be enacting a number of important legislations from now until March 2007, that will basically put this reconciliation package into meaningful and tangible implementation for people.
This month we will start with the setting up of the Constitutional Review Committee. This month we will also be passing the investment law in Iraqi Parliament. By the end of the year, we should be passing the hydrocarbon law, the oil law of Iraq, which was a key piece of legislation that will define the political economy of Iraq, and instead of oil being a resource that we will fight over, we very much hope and we are confident that we will get to that, that we will turn it into a resource that will unify Iraqis. We will be acting on the issue of DDR, disarmament and demobilization of militias, in terms of key legislation that will be presented to Parliament by October.
In the same month, we hope to present Parliament with key legislation on reforming the De-Ba'athification Commission, which has become a sore point and a point of contention among Iraqi political parties.
The reason I'm explaining this to you is that despite the images of carnage on television that focuses on the car bombs day in, day out, there is a lot of work going on in very tough circumstances. Iraqi leaders are trying to make it happen.
We are trying to create a balanced political process. The first step to that happened last election with the Sunnis taking part in this election. Are we at the stage where we will have the real political equilibrium that will sustain stability in Iraq? Probably not. And we are discovering and we are searching for the answer among ourselves, whether in Parliament, in government, in media, but we are determined to make it happen.
I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, things are not easy, but there is a serious commitment by the mainstream Iraqi leadership to make it happen, and we are hopeful that the United States, our key ally in this endeavor, will stay the course with us to make sure that we would overcome, because at the end of the day, failure in Iraq will be catastrophic to the region. Success is not only possible, but it is a must to turn around the course of events in that part of the world.
And I'll be happy to answer any of your questions.
Q Sir, do you believe that Iraq is currently in a state of civil war?
MR. SALIH: I've been asked that question a number of times, and I would answer you the following way. I really think that is an academic question and not terribly relevant to people like myself working on the ground there. But I have to acknowledge that the situation is serious. Too many innocent lives are being lost. Whether it is at some academically defined point of civil war or not civil war, the reality is there's too much violence and we need to take care of that. And that requires an inclusive and balanced political process and basically bring about the political compromises needed to deny the terrorists and the extremists the margins from which they can inflict mayhem and damage upon the Iraqi people.
Q Can you provide us any details about plans to dismantle the militias? And does it include such militias as that led by Muqtada al-Sadr?
MR. S/ALIH: The militia situation is a very, very serious challenge for Iraqis and for the Iraqi government because it touches upon the heart and the credibility of the Iraqi government and governing institutions. The prime minister has been adamant that this cannot be tolerated and that the state must be the sole practicer -- or holder of weapons as such. And we have issued a number of plans in that regard. And we have law number 91 from the CPA days, which is the DDR mechanisms, what we -- I have described to you, that by October we should be presenting Parliament with more legislative framework about how to implement that decree 91.
But there is political arrangements that need to be brought in place. There are discussion with Muqtada Sadr and other political leaders in the country that they all have to make a choice. Either they are part of the political process and renounce arms and integrate into the country's political system and governing institutions, or that present situation will not be acceptable.
There is an important event, and I don't know whether Washington or you have here considered it duly. Last -- two weeks ago, three weeks ago there was a confrontation between Iraqi military and Muqtada Sadr's forces in Diwaniyah. Some people may want to use this as a headline to say Iraq has plunged into deeper civil war and into more trouble. The way I want to understand it, and I think it is a proper way of understanding it, is that it was a serious statement by the government of Iraq, led by Nouri Maliki, that it will take on militias and it will not tolerate activities and illegal activities of militias.
And that was a tough battle, and it was tough politically as well as militarily -- politically because it basically took on domestic Shi'a dynamics by a prime minister who comes from that community itself. And he was very adamant that he would not tolerate the type of activities that we have seen in Diwaniyah.
Q If I could just follow up, a recent Pentagon report on the state of security in Iraq said that these armed militias have actually become quasi-governments, have taken the place of Iraqi government in many areas, particularly in Baghdad.
So what kind of teeth will be behind whatever legislation is passed that will assure that these militias will give up the power that they have gained in many of these areas?
MR. SALIH: I think there is a fair point in that regard, because the government, having gone through the transition that we have -- and it has been a difficult transition, and how do you make government the relevant power for security and services? And there were car bombs and there are car bombs happening, exploding day in, day out. And there are who say, "The government is unable to protect us. Therefore, we will have to rely on this armed group in order to provide us with the security we need."
There are those who advocate a notion of neighborhood watches, which I like, as a matter of fact, but so long as it is not another name for establishing local militias in this neighborhood or that neighborhood.
The question is about the government and how to make it meaningful in terms of its impact on people's lives. And that requires developing your security services, doing that, expediting it, much -- at a much faster rate than what we are doing now. And also it requires political leadership and political will on the part of the mainstream leadership of the government to say, "This is not acceptable." And we have to take them on.
The teeth is our own military forces, is the support of the coalition, and also improving the quality of services that we provide to Iraqis and to demonstrate to them that the way to bring about peace and stability is through the democratic process and through respecting the law.
MR. WHITMAN: Unfortunately, we only have a couple more minutes. Maybe one, perhaps two questions.
Q The U.S. commander in Anbar province said this week that he's not defeating the insurgency there militarily and that it will take political and developmental progress to move that along. What are your government's plans specifically for that province? What progress have you made there? What are your future plans for -- (inaudible)?
MR. SALIH: Anbar is obviously a tough, tough situation. But also, please, don't lose sight of the progress that has been made in Anbar. I mean, remember Fallujah a year ago and where Fallujah is today. We must be mindful of the inroads that al Qaeda has made into the Anbar province, and we need to look at the map as well and to see where these guys are coming from. And that is why it is very important, in a regional context, to really get our Syrian neighbors to behave more responsibly and cooperate with us on the issues of security and to clamp down on the presence and activity of some of the former regime leaders who are presently in Syria, as well as some of the terrorists that are going across the borders.
But in terms of what the Iraqi government is doing, we definitely are working hard with the coalition to build the indigenous security organizations in the Anbar province, including the police. We are working hard with the tribal chiefs to create the social environment and the local environment that will make it less permissive for these terrorists and extremists to act, and we need to move in fast with economic reconstruction.
I personally met with the governor of Anbar last -- 10 days ago or so, and we have agreed to release a lot of funds. We need to do a lot more to make sure that people will see benefit with security as well. It's not just a matter of security operations. People need to see reconstruction, and they need to see new jobs being made and so on.
In that regard, I want to tell you that our budget for 2007 will be quite an ambitious budget. We have started already discussions, and we have agreed the basic strategic outline of that budget. We need it to be an expansive budget that will help create new jobs and give Iraqis a sense of economic benefits that would come with liberation. I'm hopeful about that, and that will be an important component of our whole strategy to stabilize Iraq -- obviously, the security dimension -- but the economic dimension is important as well.
MR. WHITMAN: We'll make this the last one. His Excellency does have that important meeting across town, and I promised to get him out of here at 10:20, which it is right now. So this will have to be the last one.
Q Given that you said that Iraqis need to make it happen, nonetheless, the problems in Baghdad and the recognition of the problems -- continued problems in Anbar -- could you use more U.S. troops there?
MR. SALIH: Really, this is a matter for military commanders, both U.S. as well as Iraqi commanders, to make the case. But I can tell you the following: Ultimately, this cannot be dealt with just by military means. We need -- Iraqis need to come up with the political bargains and the political compromises that are needed. We need to make the neighborhood -- the neighbors of Iraq more cooperating with us to defeat the terrorists and to create the regional dynamics that will make it more conducive to security in Iraq. We need -- we have a lot of work that we need to do in that regard.
And whether there will be need for more forces here and there, that's a matter I would leave it to the generals on the ground to decide.
The thing to remember and note, which is very important, when we started with sovereignty, when sovereignty was regained by Iraq in June 2004, we had minimal forces. Today we have nearly 275(,000), probably 300,000 forces, whether they are police or the military. By the end of this year nearly half of Iraqi provinces will move to Iraqi security control.
There is progress that is being made. That is happening at a time when we are fighting this tough battle against international terrorists and the former regime elements, including the militias as well that are posing a growing threat to Iraqi security and Iraqi stability. We are doing these things. These (sic) progress and these benchmarks are being attained as well. So whether a tactical situation will evolve in Baghdad or somewhere else that would require injection of more U.S. troops or not, that's a matter I cannot predict now. But it is important to see the larger picture. Iraqis are assuming the lead and Iraqis are gaining control day after day.
Q Did you make a request to the secretary?
MR. SALIH: No, I did not make a request because at the end of the day I think this is a military decision. The political decision of the Iraqi government -- and this is something that we and the United States share -- is that the fundamental solution to security in Iraq will have to rely on indigenous Iraqi security forces. That is the strategic response. That is what we are doing. We are building our capabilities day in, day out, and we are devoting resources to it. And in our deliberations of the budget, we are trying to make sure that Iraqi forces will have enough resources.
But also in the same context -- and this is an opportunity to relay this to you -- we are doing, working with the international community on this framework, called the International Compact for Iraq, by which we will be projecting a road map for Iraq to gain financial self-sufficiency in four to five years time. And we as a government, we will be outlining our vision and the specific benchmarks that we will be attaining to bring about political stability and a secure environment as well as economic reforms and economic regeneration. And by the same token, we were hoping that the international community will step up to the challenge and be a partner to Iraq to achieve that vision.
Q Will Sunnis be guaranteed their fair share of oil revenue?
MR. SALIH: All Iraqis -- in accordance with the Iraqi constitution, oil is owned by all the people of Iraq in all the provinces of Iraq. One fundamental thing that we have agreed on in the -- we had the retreat.
We have learned something from U.S. decision-making. We had the retreat of key economic players in the government and the oil -- in -- and the oil sector to debate this oil law, which is key to the future of the country.
We all have agreed that revenues will be shared in the federal level and redistributed equitably among all components of Iraqi society. That is a very important development.
And watch the debate on the oil law. I bet that there will be some differences that will be out there in Iraqi parliament. But from what I have seen in terms of gauging the tone and the spirit of the debate, we will have an oil law that will provide for a conducive environment for investment, technology transfer into Iraq, as well as making oil a unifying resource for Iraqis, for all Iraqis to benefit from.
Thank you very much, ladies, gentlemen.
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