Capital Sources: Can Ryan Crocker Turn Iraq Around?

NEWSWEEK: You've said amnesties can play an important role in bringing about reconciliation between the government and people fighting the government. What about the insurgents who have American blood on their hands?
The overall principle for the Coalition and the Iraqi government is to try to reduce the number of people you've got to fight to an absolute minimum. [People need to be identified as] reconcilables and irreconcilables. We must expand the former [category] and shrink the latter. At the extremes there are going to be individual groups that simply are not reconcilable. At one end of it would be Al Qaeda. They're a strategic enemy of the U.S. and that won't change; they have to be fought. At the other end there will be radical Shia elements that also are probably going to fight to the end. In between [are] people you can get to stop fighting. That's obviously what we're seeing in Anbar and to some extent in Abu Ghraib and recently in Baghdad in Amariya.

Who will do the vetting, the Iraqi government or the American military?
It's already been discussed by the Iraqi government; [it needs an] accountability and reconciliation process. That's something the Iraqis will develop. In Anbar it's too much to think either we or the Iraqis are saying, "Wait a minute, let's take a look at each individual tribesman and decide if we want to be dealing with them of not." If someone wants to get into this fight against Al Qaeda they're more than welcome.

You mean it's a "don't ask don't tell" policy on amnesty for insurgents?
That's your phrase.

There will be people getting amnesty who fought U.S. troops in the past.
That's a fair supposition. There are people in Anbar right now who are fighting against Al Qaeda, in cooperation with Iraqi forces and Coalition forces, who six months ago were on the other side.

Acquaintances say you consider Iraqis to be "the toughest bastards in the Middle East," and that you mean it in both positive and negative ways.
That's your characterization, not mine … .Iraqis have really always had that reputation ... they are tough. Tough fighters, tough negotiators, ready to take on the world. What that means in positive terms is that Iraqis will step up to the fight. You see that with Iraqi security forces who are hanging tough and taking a lot of casualties and pushing ahead [in] very tough street fights in Baghdad. When the going gets tough, political leaders do not throw up hands and say, "I quit." Maliki is a good example … ultimately it's that kind of toughness that will bring this country through. The other side is, of course, that there are some real tough guys on the other end. … But also you see another characteristic: a fierce sense of nationalism, of Iraqi identity. That has a lot to do with what's happening in Anbar. Iraq has the toughest guys on the block; most of its neighbors would agree.

You've had some of the most dramatic and colorful experiences of any serving U.S. diplomat. Now your job is among the toughest in the world, trying to be the American ambassador in the middle of all this. What do you see as your role?
Just that, to be the American ambassador to Iraq. My checkered past has taught me a few things. One of them is respect for other people's reality. Iraq has its own reality, its own institutions, its own way of doing things, certainly its own problems that will have to be solved in Iraqi terms. Understanding what they're dealing with, why they approach things as they do ... and how that all knits together in a complex society is pretty important. It also means there aren't any solutions in Washington. That's not to say we're passive. The stakes for us are huge. The commitment we've made in blood and treasure is also huge. We will use our influence but we've got to use it prudently in a way that respects the Iraqis. Iraq is a sovereign state. They can and will make decisions (based) on the reality that is here.

What do you say when people contrast you with your immediate predecessor, Zalmay Khalilzad, who literally sat in on meetings where the Iraqi constitution was being shaped?
We're doing a lot of things here, but one thing we're not doing is running a popularity contest. I've not spent a lot of time polling Iraqis for their views on how nice or how cute they think I am.

Iraqi solutions on Iraqi terms may not add up to democracy as Americans define the word.
Iraq is a democracy. It has a constitution. It has a parliament that's pretty active. Iraqis have committed themselves to democratic framework, and that's a pretty important step. I don't think any of us envisage Iraqi solutions that go outside that definition.

You were posted to Baghdad as a young diplomat in 1978. During that assignment you got an Iraqi government permit to travel the length of the Euphrates River Valley. At the time Iraqi authorities were highly suspicious of foreign diplomats and kept them under tight surveillance, so it was an extraordinary trip for an American diplomat to make.
It was and they later came to recognize their mistake. It took a year for them to give me another travel permit. … I took off by myself in a Toyota Landcruiser. … But soon there were many people with me [because] the main way the Iraqi Army soldiers moved then was by hitchhiking. I would always say to them, "Just so you know, I'm an American diplomat assigned to Baghdad." And they would say, "God is great." (Laughs)

What were your insights from the trip?
It was fascinating. Two or three soldiers traveling together who were friends would talk with remarkable frankness. Life in the army: not good. Officers: even worse. But it was better than having no work at all, which was often the only other choice. … I went all the way up to Qaim and called on the governor there. He was utterly horrified. … On my way out I was stopped at a checkpoint and escorted back into town and basically placed under a kind of open arrest in a government building until it was ascertained [that I had a permit]. I was probably the first American diplomat in Qaim since the 1958 revolution.

How did you come to regard Iraqis as the toughest guys on the block?
It was a cumulative process. … Baghdad's Sadoun Street on Thursday nights had a lot of bars then, and a lot of Iraqis in those bars, and a lot of fistfights among those Iraqis.

In previous postings you've had a 1983 calendar, which had been on your office wall in Beirut when a terrorist bomb hit the embassy, injuring you and killing 64 people. It's not here …
No, I've been a little pressed. It's in the air-freight boxes over at the house. But it's here, and I'll put it up [when I unpack].

Just a few months before you dug through the rubble of the embassy, you had been on scene after the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. When asked about such experiences you've said, "In the center of the storm it's easy to do the right thing."
Don't take this the wrong way: gathering impressions only from media gives one the sense that nobody can function under such circumstances. But you can, because that's what you do for a living.

Are there still bits of glass embedded in the calendar?
A little bit of glass, a little bit of blood, a little bit of spilled coffee. It's there [on my wall] for several reasons. It reminds me of my responsibilities to the mission … and it reminds me that in diplomacy, as in the military, you're playing for keeps.

You don't care for creature comforts. You've lived with a shepherd family in Jordan for a month while studying Arabic as a foreign-service officer.
I lived in a tent in the Wadi Rum. On the fourth day of getting up at 4 a.m. to herd the goats, the natural beauty (of the place) started to fade. I had said, "Look if I do this I want to do this as a member of the family, not as a pampered guest." The paramount sheik placed me with a sheep-shearing family. All their elder sons were away, so they were short-handed. But in no way did they trust me shearing sheep! I got to hold the sheep while a very knowledgeable 7-year-old did the shearing (laughs). They had sized me up, listened to my less than perfect Arabic, looked at my total absence of desert survival skills, shrugged their shoulders and said, "He ain't much, but he's better than nothing."

This was the tribe of "Lawrence of Arabia" fame. What did you learn?
I learned 27 different words for camel. … I still remember sitting at night, listening to men tell stories ... the time "Abu Marwan did this." Another would say, "Yes, Mohammed was there too." Initially you'd think this was something that happened last year. But this was actually 300 or 400 years ago.

Recently you held official talks with an Iranian delegation on Iraq security issues. What's the key to dealing with Iran?
I started my career there in Khorramshahr (in 1972). … Iranians are incredibly polished and capable diplomats. Very, very good at negotiations. It helps to be well prepared and patient.

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