The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, sat down with the Los Angeles Times three weeks ago. Below are excerpts from the interview, in which Hill discussed America’s changing role in Iraq and ability to influence the country now that U.S. forces are no longer in charge of Iraq’s security and scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2011. Hill also talked about plans to scale down the U.S. Embassy there, the largest in the world. His remarks provided some insight into how the American presence in Iraq will evolve over time and some context to what issues are likely to be discussed during Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's current visit to the United States.
The Times asked Hill how the United States, with the footprint of its forces being drastically reduced, would continue to promote progress on the key issues of reconciliation, developing the economy, fighting corruption, mediating between Kurds and Arabs.
Hill: You’ve identified a number of key tasks especially in the area of reconciliation that are not necessarily a military task. I would argue most of those are increasingly, if not in some cases exclusively, civilian. I think what you are seeing in this crucial year, this the sixth year of our presence here in Iraq, is the hand-over [from the U.S. military] not only to Iraqi security forces but the hand-over to [American] civilian authorities who will be responsible for managing the U.S.-Iraqi relationship not just for the coming years, but potentially for the coming decades. You are sitting in one of the world’s largest embassies, quite frankly. We too from the point of view of the embassy, from the point of view of the various U.S. agencies that are represented here, I think we are ready to manage this relationship [with Iraq].
. . . One of the things that needs to happen is a stepping up of reconciliation efforts. To be sure, there will be people on the edges of the spectrum of opinion, who are unreconcilable, not interested in joining the mainstream, [and] not interested in joining the political process But I think there are still others where with effort can be brought into the political process. This is by and large an Iraqi issue of Iraqis talking to Iraqis, rather than Americans talking to Iraqis. It is nonetheless something we very much support and will try to be helpful whenever we can.
The Times asked how the embassy would be able to help Iraq achieve reconciliation among its various factions.
Hill: It’s an issue where we have to be welcomed in the process. Any diplomat who has faced these kinds of problems in any part of the world knows that you have to develop a reputation for bringing value to a process. The example I would give of where I think foreign diplomacy, including American diplomacy, could be helpful is on the so-called disputed internal boundaries issues, the so-called DIBS. To be sure, the U.N. has taken the lead on this with the publication of the DIBS report and the efforts to get the representatives of the Kurds and Baghdad but also the local communities, [including] Sunni Arabs, together. I think you can look for the American Embassy to try to play a helpful role in that process, as long as we are welcomed to do so, and we believe we are.
The Times asked how , in light of the withdrawal of American forces from cities, the U.S. Embassy would be able to promote reconciliation with the Sunni Awakening movement and armed groups that had stopped fighting the Iraqi government and the U.S. military since 2007.
Hill: I think the role of the United States is very much respected in this country. That doesn’t mean it is universally liked, but it is very much respected. Having been an American diplomat for 32 years, I have tended to or usually found a willingness on the part of political groups to listen to what I or my colleagues have to offer. I don’t think you have to be in the U.S. military to have people listen to you, because I think they correctly understand that we are also representing the United States. You ask what I assume to be an almost logistical question. Are we out there, are we in touch with people? The U.S. civilian authorities here . . . have something called provincial reconstruction teams [PRTs] which are located throughout the country. We have some 28 PRTs. Obviously we will be looking at how we configure PRTs in light of the eventual drawdown of U.S. troops, even outside of the cities and to determine how that will affect PRT operations. But certainly in the meantime, we have an unprecedented number of U.S. diplomats who are out among the people throughout the country. I don’t think we’ll have a problem reaching people. I think the issue will be whether some of these rejectionist groups, who probably consider us part of the problem in the first place, whether they will listen to a plea to join in the political process.
The Times asked whether the ambassador thinks U.S. officials in Iraq will be listened to by the Iraqi government on issues of freedom of speech, human rights and power-sharing in government, now that the United States has begun to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Hill: I don’t think you need to have necessarily 130,000 troops in a country to remind a politician of the need to observe human rights and respect the rule of law. . . . A country like Iraq that wants to join the international community and reverse several decades of recent history understands that the price of admission into that international community is quite often respect for international norms of human rights. I don’t think it’s necessarily for American diplomats to sell some kind of American form of human rights, but rather to be helpful to the government, in this case in Iraq, to be helpful in seeing if they can implement some international norms that will make them an equal member of the international community. What you need there is not so much troops as experience and a certain amount of patience, and certainly an understanding of how these issues need to be addressed in the world.
The Times asked whether the embassy will have enough information to judge what is happening in Iraqi cities now that U.S. forces will be restricted in their movements and based outside of cities.
Hill: We have embassies operating in scores of countries, and developing good information about what is going on is always a challenge anywhere in the world. I think our contacts in Iraq are better than in most countries. Our ability to reach senior ministers, our ability to talk to people, get their views and get information from them is pretty good in Iraq compared to many countries we operate in. I personally don’t feel we have a problem there. If you are comparing it to a time when we ran all the security ourselves, that is obviously a different era. It was a different era that was not sustainable for the rest of history. Clearly there is a point where you return security to the host country security forces.
The Times asked whether with the drawdown of American forces in Iraq and the return of Iraqi sovereignty, is it a sure thing that over time, Iraq is going to remain a democracy.
Hill: First of all, one has to acknowledge there are no sure things in the world. The real question is not whether it is guaranteed but whether the Iraqis first of all have the motivation to stay on this path; secondly have the exposure to what this path is like and what things they need to do to journey on this path. And we believe that we have really invested very heavily in giving them the capacity to stay on this path. Ultimately, whether they stay on the path or wander onto another path is going to be up to them, but we believe we have given them the wherewithal to stay on the right path. I think it’s important to understand that we are not asking Iraqis to be Americans. We are trying to help Iraqis with their own historical and cultural antecedents to be a democratic country in an increasingly democratizing region and becoming a member of the international community in good standing. I think these are all elements of things that Iraqis really want. When you talk to Iraqis, you do hear from them a striving for normalcy. I don’t think the majority of Iraqis would ever want to see a return to Saddam Hussein or this sort of model which … has led them into such catastrophes in the past. With the understanding there are no sure bets in life, I think we have certainly given them a really good motivation and capacity to stay on the right road.
The Times asked whether the embassy, currently ranked the largest in the world, plans to downsize.
Hill: If you look at the average size of an embassy in the world, normally you wouldn’t expect to have this large an embassy in a country of this size. That said, we are engaged in a lot of different things here, because of the need to be outside the belt of Baghdad and the need to try to engage people in local areas. We have an enormous amount of staff that is out there. I would not look for any dramatic reductions. But we will be constantly in the search for right-sizing efforts. I would hope we can reduce in some areas. But overall what we are trying to do in this crucial year of pivoting from the military to civilian presence, we are trying to make sure that we are able to do this in a way that maintains the momentum that I think that is very much created by our military being here especially in recent years.
-- Ned Parker and Liz Sly in Baghdad
Photo: U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill. Credit: Hadi Mizban / Associated Press