By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Civil war has been averted in Iraq and Iranian intervention there has "ceased to exist," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday.
"I can't say there is a picture of roses and flowers in Iraq," Maliki told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "However, I can say that the greatest victory, of which I am proud . . . is stopping the explosion of a sectarian war." That possibility, he said, "is now far away."
While political reconciliation is not yet complete, he said, progress is being made. "Reconciliation is not a decision that can be made, but a process that takes continuous efforts and also needs strategic patience," Maliki said.
He said cabinet ministers who have left his government in protest will be replaced, and he expressed confidence that the Iraqi parliament will pass legislation that he, the Bush administration and Congress have demanded.
Maliki, who will speak to the U.N. General Assembly tomorrow, deftly dodged questions about last week's incident in which employees of Blackwater, a private U.S. security firm, allegedly killed 11 Iraqi civilians. While "initial signs" are that "there was some wrongdoing from Blackwater," he said, he will await the results of a U.S.-Iraqi investigation. He dismissed a statement by the interior minister in Baghdad that Blackwater will be banned from Iraq, saying the positions of the ministry and his office are "the same."
Iraqi security forces, Maliki said, are increasingly capable of operating without U.S. support. But he agreed with the Bush administration that an early U.S. withdrawal would be unwise.
Iraq's political leadership, he said through an interpreter, "wants the process of withdrawing troops to happen [simultaneously with] the process of rebuilding Iraqi Security Forces so that they can take responsibility." No one, he said, "wants to risk losing all the achievements" they have made.
But although Bush administration officials have spoken of a smaller, long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, similar to the tens of thousands of troops stationed in South Korea over the past half-century, Maliki said he does not foresee it.
The two governments, he said, are in the initial phases of discussion about "a long-term multilateral treaty and not necessarily a long-term presence for troops." Any agreement, he said, would have to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.
Maliki's view of Iran's role in fomenting violence in Iraq also diverges from that of the administration. He said his government has begun a dialogue with Iran and Syria and has explained to them that their activities are unhelpful. As a result, he said, "our relationships with these countries has improved to the point that they are not interfering in our internal affairs."
Asked about Iran's Revolutionary Guard Forces, which the U.S. military charges is arming, training and directing Shiite militias in Iraq, Maliki said: "There used to be support through borders for these militias. But it has ceased to exist."
He said he has no fear of Sunni tribal forces recruited by the United States in their Anbar province stronghold because all Sunnis are "sons of Iraq."
Maliki said his goal as leader of Iraq's Shiite-majority government is for Shiites and Sunnis to perceive him as evenhanded. "When people talk about Prime Minister Maliki," he said, ". . . some Shiites say he is with us, some Sunnis say he is against" and vice versa. "This is the equation I want to maintain. I am multi-nationalistic."