23 April 2006
Iraq's New Prime Minister Can Unify Country, U.S. Official Says
Ambassador Khalilzad cites al-Maliki's strong leadership, patriotism
By Ralph Dannheisser
Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington -- The U.S. ambassador to Iraq says that nation’s newly named prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, has the toughness and patriotism needed to forge a government of national unity.
Interviewed April 23 on CNN’s Late Edition, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said al-Maliki "has a reputation for being a strong leader, a patriotic leader, without being subordinate or having strong ties to any of the regional players."
"We look forward to working with him," Khalilzad said. "He has said a number of very positive things since he was nominated: that he will work for all Iraqis; he will put a competent, independent strong team together; that he will deal with the issue of the militias, and that he will also review the issue of how de-Ba'athification [the removal of former Ba'ath Party officials from the Iraqi military and government] has been carried out."
Al-Maliki, a leading Shi’ite politician, was formally named to the prime minister’s post by the Iraqi parliament a day earlier, ending months of stalemate in attempts to form a long-term government. He will replace Prime Minister Ibraham al-Jafari, also a Shi’ite, who gave up his bid for another term.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, will continue in that post in the new government, while Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, has been chosen as the parliament’s speaker, providing a carefully crafted balance among the three groups.
Khalilzad, speaking from Baghdad, said he is encouraged that al-Maliki may be what Iraq needs -- someone who can unify the country. "We will have to wait and see how he does in office, but the indications are positive," he added.
The ambassador noted that al-Jafari’s prime ministership foundered largely because "the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs rejected him." In contrast, he said, "These two groups have welcomed Mr. Maliki …. With regard to his competence, he has a reputation for being a strong leader."
Asked by Blitzer whether al-Maliki’s past statements could indicate that he will be tough not only on terrorists themselves, but on their supporters and even their family members, Khalilzad predicted that taking over a key government role would moderate his approach.
"He is a tough guy … [and] very tough on the issue of terrorism," the ambassador agreed. But, he said, "The responsibilities of the office are not the same as when you’re campaigning against other opponents, as he was in the period prior to the December 15 elections." Thus, to some extent "it will be different once he’s in office. There are rules and regulations and laws that govern these things."
"But yes, he is a tough-minded, strong leader, and he has taken strong positions against the terrorists and the insurgency, and on the Ba’athists as well," Khalilzad said. Al-Maliki, who returned from exile after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, has been active in purging former officials of the Ba’ath Party that was Hussein’s power base from the new Iraqi military and government and has been a leading figure in the nation’s Deba'athification Commission.
Khalilzad rejected the thrust of a question by Blitzer that suggested al-Maliki might be too closely aligned with Iran. "There is good evidence that he is quite independent of Iran," he declared.
The ambassador responded with cautious optimism when Blitzer asked whether the advent of the new Iraqi government could speed a significant U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
As circumstances in Iraq change, he said, so will the level, the mission and the composition of coalition forces there. The advent of a government of national unity "with a competent prime minister that can unify as well as good, strong ministers can … assist in the adjustment, both in terms of size and in terms of the mission and the composition of the forces here," he said.
"The political process will have a very positive effect if it goes forward as I have described," he continued. Taken together with "the training of Iraqi forces, the level of the terrorist attacks, what happens to the insurgency, and the regional environment," Khalilzad said, "it will have a positive effect in terms of the requirements for the level of forces that we have right now."
For more information on U.S. policies, see Iraq Update.
A transcript of Khalilzad's interview on Late Edition is available on the CNN Web site.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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