Q&A: Iraq's Ambassador to U.S.

Until recently, Iraq's Anbar province was the heartland of the insurgency and a safe haven for Al Qaeda. But now the American military has formed alliances with local tribes to fight insurgents and terror cells. Proponents of the U.S. war effort cite Anbar as a model for future success. Critics worry that the American military, by arming local tribes, is sowing the seeds of further fragmentation. Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, has family in Anbar. U.S. Marines killed a cousin of his there in 2005. The family says the young man, Mohammed Sumaidaie, was killed in cold blood, but a military investigation was inconclusive. Ambassador Sumaidaie recently returned from a visit to Anbar. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet about his cousin's death, the new American strategy, and the frustrations in Washington with the slow pace of his government's reconciliation.

NEWSWEEK: The last time we met we were speaking about the death of your cousin, who was killed by U.S. Marines in his home [in 2005]. You were in touch with Gen. [David] Petraeus, and you had been assured there would be a transparent, speedy investigation. Was there?
Sumaidaie: Unfortunately, it was neither transparent nor speedy. The wheels of bureaucracy turned very slowly, and sometimes in a very opaque manner. It went on and on. I asked for copies of investigation reports; I got them with all of the names blocked out. Then I spoke to Gen. Petraeus when he took over, and I told him we were not getting anywhere. Eventually we agreed on … a gesture of compensation to the family. But [also], the military in the area said they would look into a project, a local clinic or something, that would be named after Mohammed and benefit the community.

Did they build the clinic?
No, no. We are still talking about it… This is the best we can do. I didn't want this issue to divert my attention from what I am doing for the whole of Iraq. I'm not here representing a family. I'm representing a country. There are a lot of victims, a lot of casualties of war.

On that topic, what was your view of the recent shooting incident involving Blackwater security? According to some accounts, at least 11 Iraqi civilians were killed.
It is clear there was significant loss of life, and a lot of wounded. Obviously, I cannot comment on exactly what happened, because that is being investigated. But I know for sure that the Iraqi government has taken this very seriously.

At first the Iraqi government said it would expel and ban Blackwater from the country. Then it seemingly reversed itself. What happened?
What has been agreed is that a transparent and independent investigation will be launched. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to our prime minister on the telephone, expressed regret, and promised that the United States would work with the Iraqi government to get to the bottom of what happened.

Who will conduct the investigation?
I'm not aware of the details.

One problem seems to be that if the U.S. government were to withdraw military contractors, who number in the tens of thousands, it would negate the surge.
In a sense, yes. But I think the Iraqi government suggested at one point replacing one company [Blackwater] with another. We are not saying we would ban all private companies. But they have to be accountable to someone. The principle of accountability has to be applied, and those companies that go beyond their proper limits should be removed.

They are not subject to any Iraqi laws, correct?
During the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority, [American proconsul] Paul Bremer issued an edict to put them outside Iraqi law. Our parliament has not gotten around to dealing with that. We are trying to race through so many other pieces of legislation. Sooner or later we need to have that attended to.

So if a military contractor murders an Iraqi civilian in cold blood, can he be prosecuted anywhere?
As things stand, he cannot be prosecuted in Iraq by Iraqi courts, and I am not clear on whether he can be prosecuted in this country. It seems they have been given de facto immunity from prosecution.

You say your parliament has been busy racing through legislation, but there's a perception here in Washington that they've been extremely slow. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, seemed to voice a broad sense of frustration recently when he said that "Iraqi politicians dawdle while our casualties and our expenditures keep climbing."
We understand the frustrations. But before [the Iraqi parliament] went on summer recess, they had passed more than 60 pieces of legislation. On the specific draft legislation listed as benchmarks, there has not been enough progress. These are complicated issues.

The key points that people refer to are: setting a date for provincial elections, approval of an oil law, approval of a de-Baathification law, and a referendum on constitutional amendments. What is holding them up?
We understand that. But there are complex issues that Congress here [in the United States], working in ideal conditions, has not put to bed. Take the immigration issue, which has been going on for years. Still not settled. And nobody is threatening their lives. The Iraqi parliament is doing the best it can. Maybe there is too much emphasis placed on the promulgation of these laws. Take de-Baathification. The process has started in reality. All members of the disbanded security services of Saddam Hussein—the army and special branches—were given a choice to either come back into service or to be put on pension. It was a very significant gesture. That happened a few months ago, but there was not a lot of talk about it here. On the oil law, as we speak the oil revenue is being distributed to the regions according to their populations. So we are applying the principles that matter. Sorting out the complex issues of legislation needs time.

Gen. Petraeus has suggested that the United States will be able to withdraw five combat brigades by next July. Does your government agree with that timetable?
He is in the best position to make that assessment. But having just been to Iraq myself, and having visited Anbar [province] myself, I think a lot of progress has been made. Not nearly enough, but a lot of progress. Anbar was a no-go area six months ago, with hardly any police in it. Now it's one of the safest areas.

Your family is from Anbar.
Yes, my father's side of the family.

There is some concern that the strategy being pursued there, to arm and support tribal groups, will ultimately lead to the fragmentation of the country.
I don't share that concern. Our primary and most ruthless enemy is Al Qaeda. They are behind all the attempts to start up a sectarian war between Iraqis. To defeat Al Qaeda has to be the highest priority for us. Al Qaeda has some support, obviously. But initially the posture of the American military was based on the doctrine of force protection. It was a defensive posture. That meant ceding territory to the enemy. That meant Al Qaeda had the chance to establish its "rule" in settled areas, and intimidate the local population into submission. That's exactly what happened in Anbar. People were terrified. They were suffering attacks by Al Qaeda, and then forays by American troops to counterattack Al Qaeda, and civilian casualties would result. There came a point where people couldn't take it anymore. So they rose up. This started to happen near the Syrian border. One particular tribe rose up because some of its young men were slaughtered by Al Qaeda. And there was a domino effect all the way down the Euphrates. At that point, the Americans made the right moves. They supported these tribes instead of attacking them.

Where is Al Qaeda regrouping now?
There are still pockets between the Tigris and the Euphrates, in an area called Thira'a Dijla. Some of them are hiding there. It's dispersed villages, agricultural land and some rough terrain. But we are pursuing them.

What do you make of Democratic proposals to draw down American troops faster?
The presentation made by General Petraeus was coherent, realistic and persuasive. As far as I can see, having just been in Iraq, it relates to the situation on the ground. Other people can sit around tables and make their own statements. I would take my chances with Petraeus.

If Iraq somehow becomes a stable country­­—
When Iraq becomes a stable country.

—will there be good feelings toward America, or will there be animosity?
Look, I think the Americans have committed many mistakes. But there are two things in their favor. First, they have helped us to get rid of Saddam, and nobody will forget that. That is a huge thing they have done for us. Secondly, if they end up doing the right thing, as they are doing now … people remember things by their endings, not by the trouble they had on the way. As you know, many of these tribes in Anbar were fighting the Americans not out of choice. When the Americans moved into Anbar, not a shot was fired against them. The tribes and local dignitaries went to the American commander and said to him, "We don't want to fight with you. We want to live in peace." It was some extremists who started making trouble. But the way then that the communities were treated, by some Americans who should have known better, made the local populations hostile. There was a negative period of confrontation. But now the local communities are working with the Americans hand in glove. There is a much better relationship.

One matter that both Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker focused on [in recent testimony before Congress] was the Iranian role in Iraq. They were very critical of Iran, saying it was building up Hizbullah-style militia forces, supplying roadside bombs and armor-penetrating projectiles. What is your government's position on Iran?
Our position is very clear. We have told our Iranian neighbors repeatedly, frankly and forcefully that they should stop interfering in Iraq. They should be helping us make the country secure, because if Iraq falls apart, nobody in the region will be unaffected.

So you agree that the Iranians are continuing to supply—
There is evidence that some weapons are coming across the border, and some people going back and forth across that border are taking part in activities which disturb our security. Now, Iranians always deny knowledge of these activities. And we continue to remind them that they should do a better job of preventing such things from happening.

Some politicians talk about the "soft partition" of Iraq as the best solution.
This is another example of designing solutions in Washington. Iraqi society is far more integrated than many people here believe. More than 30 percent of city and town dwellers, who are the majority in Iraq, are in mixed marriages. Most of our tribes are mixed tribes, meaning the same tribe will have Shia and Sunnis. So in Iraq such solutions as were applied in the Balkans are not easy to apply.

When will the last American soldier leave Iraq?
I don't know, but I have the feeling it will be a long time.

Meaning what?
I believe that both Iraq and the United States have a national interest in building up long-term security relationships. If we look at it purely on a practical level, never mind the geopolitical aspects, the new Iraq has to rebuild its armed forces. It has to build up an air force, it has to build up a navy, it has to build up land forces. Our air force is embryonic. We have no fighters, we have no real capability, and that takes years to build.

Ten years?
I don't know. We heard a presentation in Baghdad by the minister of defense, and he was talking about stages. By 2012 we will reach an acceptable level of capacity, which we will then need to improve toward 2018. This a time scale on which you can build proper, integrated armed forces that can secure the borders. These are the practicalities of the issue. Air forces don't just come out of thin air.