Ryan Crocker's Exit Presser in Baghdad

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, admittedly worn out from years on the intense diplomatic front lines since September 11, 2001, gave his last press conference to the Baghdad Western press corps today. He reiterated that America needs to stick with the effort in Iraq lest the country slide back into turmoil.

Crocker came to Iraq in March, 2007, near the height of the country's violence, and can be credited with playing a key behind-the-scenes role in pushing along the country's turbulent political development as the military helped quell the violence. He noted that since 9/11 he has at one time or another been chief of the U.S. missions in embassies in Kabul, Islamabad and Baghdad.

At 59 years old, he is headed for retirement in Washington state when he leaves his post next month. "My plan is to have no plan," he said, explaining that the "pace and pressures" of this job have precluded him from giving sufficient thought to his next move. He's reputed to have joked that he won't inflict a memoir on the public--but it could be a good one. He's been present for some of the pivotal moments in the region, speaks Arabic and Farsi, and probably has the best on-the-ground feel for today's Middle East of any American diplomat.

He wouldn't say what advice he gave President Barack Obama in a call yesterday but his assessment with reporters was upbeat, noting Iraq's improved security and stability. Like other U.S. officials, he called the situation in Iraq "fragile" but said he would amend the phrase to "still fragile" to emphasize that progress has been great.

But many of his comments stressed the need for America to keep working hard in Iraq. He said that among Iraqis, traumatized by decades of tyranny and the violence since that tyranny ended, "fear is pervasive." It implies that the factions are still distrustful and can find easy justification for striking out. It means that there must be a settlement over the ongoing questions of self-governance in areas disputed between Arabs and Kurds.

On a subtopic, Crocker raised a point of growing concern here, the increasingly alarming problems with what the embassy calls "rule of law." This covers the worsening track record of the Iraqi government for detaining people without charges or for political reasons, intimidation of the courts, and the rampant corruption that undermines credibility in the system.

He said he trusts Obama's commitment to a "responsible" withdrawal. But when asked what would be the results of a too-quick pullout he said it could lead the different sides to retreat into fear and start preparing their arsenals for another round of bloodshed. The effort to make Iraq stable is slow going. "There is still a substantial distance to go and I think that distance will be covered by chipping it out," he said. "It's going to be three yards at a time. I don't see that long touchdown pass." Later he shied off a question of what the war's legacy will be for the region. "We're at a very encouraging, hopeful point but not a culminating point by any means," he said.