Published: August 11, 2010
Five months after Iraqis voted in a general election, Iraq is having trouble forming a new government even as U.S. troops draw down, but the outgoing U.S. ambassador says the country is making progress.
"I think any country where the election result is 4/100th of a percentage point difference between the winner and the second-place coalition is going to have some pushing and shoving, and that's what going on," Christopher Hill told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "So the question is: Are they getting anywhere? And, I must say, in the last couple of weeks, the pace has really quickened. And there's a feeling that things may be heading in the right direction."
Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite coalition and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Sunni bloc have been vying for power since the March 7 election. The results of the election were so close that neither man won enough seats to form a government.
Hill noted that though the divisions in Iraq seem like they are along ethnic lines, the reality is more complicated.
"Another way to put it is this is identity politics and, yes, people have an identity as Shia or an identity as Sunni," he said. "But I'd like to point out there are a number of Shia parties who are quite at each other's throats.
"So it's not the defining characteristic. It's not all Shia against all Sunni."
As the U.S. begins its troop reduction in Iraq, critics such as former Congressman Lee Hamilton have said the national reconciliation, which the "surge" of U.S. troops was supposed to create a space for, has not occurred. Hill debated that assessment but acknowledged that there are challenges.
"There are people known as unreconcilables -- people, you know, firing rockets in the Green Zone or exploding car bombs," he said. "These are not people who are going to be bought off, you know, by giving them the Culture Ministry in a government formation exercise.
"But, I would say, in terms of main political groupings ... there's been a lot of reconciliation here, but obviously more needs to be done."
Hill said that as he prepares to leave Iraq, he is optimistic about its future. He said it remains a country important to U.S. interests and one that has signed deals with the major global oil companies.
"Iraq is not just America's problem," he said. "Other countries have a real stake in its success."
Hill also praised his relationship with the military, noting that the U.S. was transitioning from a military-led presence in Iraq to a civilian-led presence.
"As the military is moving, just in my tenure, from 140,000 to 50,000, this embassy has become the largest embassy in the world," he said. "Along with the Great Wall of China, it's one of the things you can see with the naked eye from outer space. It's huge.
"I don't think there is any doubt that we're committed to a long-term presence here. And I think that's the most important thing that our military wants to hear." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP: host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Iraq has gone more than five months since its election without organizing a new government.
Ambassador CHRIS HILL (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): They have not passed a law in this country since February. I mean not even a Mothers Day proclamation.
INSKEEP: Thats U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill, whos just finishing his time in Baghdad and who sat down and talked with us. For months, Hill has watched two leading coalitions fail to settle on who should run the country. The stalemate happens just as U.S. troops reduce their presence.
What is taking so long for Iraqis to form a government?
Amb. HILL: Well, in a word, its politics. I think any country where the election result is 4/100th of a percentage point difference between the winner and the second-place coalition is going to have some pushing and shoving, and that's what going on. So the question is: Are they getting anywhere? And I must say, in the last couple of weeks, the pace has really quickened. And I think there's a feeling that things may be heading in the right direction.
INSKEEP: I suppose this is troubling to some people because it seems to reflect the same sectarian divide that Iraq has not resolved since 2003 really, the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.
Amb. HILL: Well, you know, one way to put it is that there's a divide. Another way to put it is this is identity politics. And yes, people have an identity as Shia or an identity as Sunni. But I'd like to point out, there are a number of Shia parties who are quite at each other's throats. So it's not the defining characteristic. It's not all Shia against all Sunni.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Hill, as you know very well, the United States if formerly reducing its role in Iraq this month. And even as that happens, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, very respected voice on foreign affairs, in looking over the accomplishments or lack of them over the last couple of years, wrote recently: National reconciliation, which the surge, the surge in American troops, was supposed to create the space for, has not occurred.
Is that correct? There's been no national reconciliation?
Amb. HILL: Well, first of all, there has been national reconciliation. But there are people known as unreconcilables. I mean, people, you know, firing rockets in the Green Zone or, you know, exploding car bombs. I mean these are not people who are going to be bought off by, you know, by giving them the Culture Ministry and a government formation exercise.
But I would say, in terms of main political groupings, I would say there's been a lot of reconciliation here, but obviously more needs to be done.
INSKEEP: As you prepare to leave Baghdad, do you leave Iraq thinking that this a country that still could collapse?
Amb. HILL: Actually, I look at this in pretty optimistic terms. Its obviously a complex country. Its where the Shia world meets the Sunni world. Its where the Turkmen world meets the Arab world. There are a lot of complexities here. And I think its a very important country to our interests, and I dont mean that from an ideological point of view. I mean that from the point of view of looking at a map. So I think there's a lot at stake here, but I think its also a place thats going in the right direction.
They signed 11 major oil deals while I was here. I mean these are oil deals with all the major oil companies. Indeed, they are oil deals with all the companies from all the countries who are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. So Iraq is no longer just Americas problem; other countries have a real stake in its success.
INSKEEP: You know, you mentioned the complexity of Iraq. I wonder if in your mind that has been a reason to tread cautiously and maybe not always get too involved in the situation in Iraq because it is so complex and you dont know if youre going to do more harm than good.
Amb. HILL: I think that goes not just for Iraq but that goes for a lot of countries. You know, problems happen for a reason. And the first question one should ask is not, you know, how do you get rid of Dictator X. You might want to ask why Dictator X is there in the first place. But I really think that taking a position of sort of modesty, of understanding the complexity, and giving the Iraqis a little chance to try to work these things out - and so I think it is going in the right direction now.
INSKEEP: Did that put you at odds over the last 16 months with U.S. military commanders who are seen as favoring a more active role for the United States?
Amb. HILL: Not at all. I mean first of all, I meet with General Ray Odierno just about every day. I mean we dont have any differences on any of these issues. One of the complexities has, of course, been the transition. We're going from military-led presence here to a civilian-led presence, you know.
And so as the military is moving just in my tenure from 140,000 to 50,000, I mean this embassy is the largest - it's become the largest embassy in the world. I mean along with the Great Wall of China, it's one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space. I mean it's huge. And so I don't think there's any doubt that we are committed to a long-term relationship. And I think that's the most important thing that our military wants to hear - that they have sacrificed greatly over these seven years and they want to make sure the civilians are ready to come in behind and really work this issue. And I think they are convinced we are doing so.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Chris Hill in Baghdad. Thanks very much.
Amb. HILL: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He's retiring from the foreign service this month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.