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Transcript

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's Opening Remarks

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 12:02 PM

CROCKER: Mr. Chairman, Senator McCain, members of the committee, it is an honor to appear before you today to provide my assessment on political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq.

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When General Petraeus and I reported to you in September, I gave my considered judgment on whether our goals in Iraq were attainable. Can Iraq develop into a united, stable country with a democratically elected government operating under the rule of law?

Last September, I said that the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq was upwards, although the slope of that line was not steep.

Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend. Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustratingly slow, but there is progress.

Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment. What has been achieved is substantial but it is also reversible.

Five years ago, the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad. The euphoria of that moment evaporated long ago. But as Iraq emerges from the shattering violence of 2006 and the early part of 2007, there is reason to sustain that commitment and the enormous investment we have made in the lives of our young men and women and our resources.

Let me describe the developments upon which I base such a judgment.

The first is at the national level in the form of legislation and the development of Iraq's parliament. In September, we were disappointed that Iraq had not yet completed key laws. In the last several months, Iraq's parliament has formulated, debated vigorously, and in many cases passed legislation dealing with vital issues of reconciliation and nation building.

A pension law extended benefits to individuals who had been denied them because of service with the previous regime.

The accountability and justice law, de-Baathification reform, passed after lengthy and often contentious debate, and reflects a strengthened spirit of reconciliation, as does a far-reaching amnesty law.

The provincial powers law is a major step forward in defining the relationship between the federal and provincial governments. This involved a debate about the fundamental nature of the state similar in its complexity to our own lengthy and difficult debate over states' rights.

The provincial powers law also called for provincial elections by October 1, 2008. And an electoral law is now under discussion that will set the parameter for those elections.

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XXX for those elections.

CROCKER: All major parties have announced their support for elections, which will be a major step forward in Iraq's political development and will set the stage for national elections in late 2009.

A vote by the Council of Representatives in January to change the design of the Iraqi flag means the flag now flies in all parts of the country for the first time in years.

And the passage of the 2008 budget, with record amounts for capital expenditures, ensures that the federal and provincial governments will have the resources for public spending.

All of this has been done since September.

These laws are not perfect, and much depends on their implementation, but they are important steps.

Also important has been the development of Iraq's Council of Representatives as a national institution. Last summer, the parliament suffered from persistent and often paralyzing disputes over leadership and procedure. Now it is successfully grasping -- grappling with complex issues and producing viable tradeoffs and compromise packages.

As debates in Iraq's parliament become more about how to resolve tough problems in a practical way, Iraqi politics have become more fluid. Those politics still have a sectarian bent in basis, but coalitions have formed around issues, and sectarian political groupings, which often were barriers to progress, have become more flexible.

Let me also talk about the intangibles.

Attitudes among the Iraqi people.

In 2006 and 2007, many understandably questioned whether hatred between Iraqis of different sectarian backgrounds was so deep that a civil war was inevitable. The Sunni Awakening movement in Anbar, which so courageously confronted Al Qaida, continues to help keep the peace in the area and keep Al Qaida out. Fallujah, once a symbol for violence and terror, is now one of Iraq's safest cities. The Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are enjoying security and growing prosperity in the wake of popular rejection of extremist militia activity.

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XXX extremist militia activity.

CROCKER: The Shia clerical leadership, the marjiya, based in Najaf, has played a quiet but important role in support of moderation and reconciliation.

In Baghdad, we can see that Iraqis are not pitted against each other purely on the basis of sectarian affiliation. The security improvements of the past months have diminished the atmosphere of suspicion and allowed for acts of humanity that transcend sectarian identities.

When I arrived in Baghdad a year ago, my first visit to a city district was to the predominantly Sunni area of Dora. Surge forces were just moving into neighborhoods still gripped by Al Qaida. Residents were also terrorized by extremist Shia militias.

Less than a year later, at the end of February, tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims walked through those same streets on their way to Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Sunni residents offered food and water as they passed through, and some joined the pilgrimage.

News from Iraq in recent weeks has been dominated by the situation in Basra. Taken as a snapshot, with scenes of increasing violence and masked gunmen in the streets, it is hard to see how the situation supports a narrative of progress in Iraq. And there is still very much to be done to bring full government control to the streets of Basra and eliminate entrenched extremist, criminal and militia groups.

But when viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to take on these groups in Basra has major significance.

First, a Shia-majority government led by Prime Minister Maliki has demonstrated its commitment to taking on criminals and extremists regardless of identity.

Second, Iraqi security forces led these operations in Basra and in towns and cities throughout the south. British and U.S. elements played important roles, but these were supporting roles, as they should be.

The operation in Basra has also shaken up Iraqi politics.

The prime minister returned to Baghdad from Basra shortly before General Petraeus and I left for Washington, and he is confident in his decision and determined to press the fight against illegal groups. MORE

XXX against illegal groups.

CROCKER: But he is also determined to take a hard look at lessons learned.

The efforts of the government against extremist militia elements have broad political support, as a statement April 5 by virtually all of Iraq's main political leaders -- Sunni, Shia and Kurd -- made clear in support of Prime Minister Maliki's government.

A wild card remains the Sadrist trend and whether the Iraqis can continue to drive a wedge between other elements of the trend and Iranian-supported special groups.

A dangerous development in the immediate wake of the Basra operation was what appeared to be a reunification between special groups and mainline Jaish al-Mahdi. We saw -- we also saw a potential collapse of the Jaish al-Mahdi freeze in military operations.

As the situation unfolded, however, Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement that disavowed anyone possessing heavy weapons, which would include the signature weapons of the special groups. This statement can further sharpen the distinction between members of the Sadrist trend, who should not pose a threat to the Iraqi state, and members of the special groups, who very much do.

One conclusion I draw from these signs of progress is that the strategy that began with the surge is working. This does not mean that U.S. support should be open-ended, or that the level and nature of our engagement should not diminish over time.

It is in this context that we have begun negotiating a bilateral relationship between Iraq and the United States.

In August, Iraq's five principal leaders requested a long-term relationship with the United States, to include economic, political, diplomatic and security cooperation.

The heart of this relationship will be a legal framework for the presence of American troops similar to that which exists in nearly 80 countries around the world.

The Iraqis view the negotiation of this framework as a strong affirmation of Iraqi sovereignty, placing Iraq on par with other U.S. allies and removing the stigma of Chapter 7 status under the U.N. Charter, pursuant to which coalition forces presently operate.

Such an agreement is in Iraq's interest and ours. U.S. forces will remain in Iraq beyond December 31, 2008, when the U.N. resolution presently governing their presence expires. Our troops will need basic authorizations and protections to continue operations, and this agreement will provide those authorizations and protections.

The agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq, and we anticipate that it will expressly forswear them. The agreement will not specify troop levels, and it will not tie the hands of the next administration.

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XXX the next administration.

CROCKER: Our aim is to ensure that the next president arrives in office with a stable foundation upon which to base policy decisions, and that is precisely what this agreement will do. Congress will remain fully informed as these negotiations proceed in the coming weeks and months.

Mr. Chairman, significant challenges remain in Iraq. A reinvigorated cabinet is necessary both for political balance and to improve the delivery of services to Iraq's people. Challenges to the rule of law, especially corruption, are enormous. Disputed internal boundaries, the Article 140 process, must be resolved. The return of refugees and the internally displaced must be managed. The rights of women and minorities must be better protected.

Iraqis are aware of the challenges they face and are working on them.

Iraq's political progress will not be linear. Developments which are on the whole positive can still have unanticipated or destabilizing consequences.

The decision to hold provincial elections, vital for Iraq's democratic development and long-term stability, will also produce new strains. Some of the violence we have seen recently in southern Iraq reflects changing dynamics within the Shia community as the political and security context changes.

Such inflection points underscore the fragility of the situation in Iraq but it would be wrong to conclude that any eruption of violence marks the beginning of an inevitable backslide.

In terms of economics and capacity building, in September I reported to you that there had been some gains in Iraq's economy and in the country's efforts to build capacity to translate these gains into more effective governance and services.

Iraqis have built on these gains over the past months, as is most evident in the revival of marketplaces across Iraq and the reopening of long-shuttered businesses.

According to a Center for International Private Enterprise poll last month, 78 percent of Iraqi business owners surveyed expect the Iraqi economy to grow significantly in the next two years.

With improving security and rising government expenditures, the IMF projects that Iraq's GDP will grow 7 percent in real terms this year, and inflation has been tamed. The dinar remains strong, and the central bank has begun to bring down interest rates.

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XXX down interest rates.

CROCKER: Iraq's 2008 budget has allocated $13 billion for reconstruction, and a $5 billion supplemental budget this summer will further invest export revenues in building the infrastructure and providing the services that Iraq so badly needs.

This spending also benefits the United States. Iraq recently announced its decision to purchase 40 commercial aircraft from the U.S. at an estimated cost of $5 billion.

As Iraq is now earning the financial resources it needs for bricks-and-mortar construction through oil production and export, our assistance has shifted to capacity development and an emphasis on local and post-kinetic development through our network of provincial reconstruction teams and ministerial advisers.

The era of U.S.-funded major infrastructure projects is over. We are seeking to ensure that our assistance in partnership with the Iraqis leverages Iraq's own resources.

Our 25 PRTs throughout Iraq have been working to improve provincial and local governance capabilities, particularly in budget design and execution. They are also helping to establish critical linkages between provincial and federal governments.

Our PRTs are great enablers, and we are working to ensure their continued viability as our forces redeploy. The relatively small amounts they disburse through quick response funds have major impacts in local communities, and congressional support is important, as it is for other vital programs in the F.Y. '08 global war on terrorism supplemental request.

Iraq increasingly is using its own resources to support projects and programs that we have developed. It has committed approximately $200 million in support of a program to provide vocational training for concerned local citizens who stood up with us in the Awakening.

Our technical assistance advisers have helped design new procurement procedures for Iraq's Oil Ministry. We developed a technical specifications from which Iraq's state-owned oil company will build new oil export platforms and underwater pipelines worth over $1 billion.

And in Baghdad, in the last three months, the municipality has stepped up to take over labor contracts worth $100 million that we had been covering under the Community Stabilization Program to clean the streets. Like so much else, Iraq's economy is fragile, the gains reversible and the challenges ahead substantial. Iraq will need to continue to improve governmental capacity, pass national-level hydrocarbon legislation, improve electrical production and distribution, improve the climate for foreign and domestic investment, create short- and long-term jobs and tackle the structural and economic problems of the vital agricultural sector.

We will be helping the Iraqis as they tackle this challenging agenda, along with other international partners, including the United Nations and the World Bank.

In terms of regional and international dynamics, Mr. Chairman, along with the security surge last year, we also launched a diplomatic surge focused on enhancing U.N. engagement in Iraq, anchoring the International Compact with Iraq and establishing an expanded neighbors process, which serves as a contract group in support of Iraq.

The United Nations has taken advantage of an expanded mandate granted to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, UNAMI, to increase the scope of its activities and the size of its staff.

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XXX of its staff.

CROCKER: Under dynamic new leadership, UNAMI is playing a key role in preparing for provincial elections and in providing technical assistance to resolve disputed internal boundaries.

UNHGR has returned international staff to Iraq to assist with the return of internally displaced persons and refugees.

The International Compact with Iraq provides a five-year framework for Iraq to reform its economy and to achieve economic self- sufficiency in exchange for long overdue Saddam error debt relief.

Preparations are under way for a ministerial-level compact meeting in Sweden next month. Seventy-four nations were represented at last year's gathering in Egypt.

Iraq's neighbors also understand they have a major interest in Iraq's future. Turkey hosted the second ministerial meeting of Iraq's neighbors in November and Kuwait will host a third meeting later this month. In addition to all of Iraq's neighbors, these expanded neighbors conferences also include the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, the Arab League, and the G-8.

Support from Arab capitals has not been strong and must improve for the sake of Iraq and the sake of the region. Bahrain's recent announcement that it will return an ambassador to Baghdad and is welcomed and other Arab states should follow suit.

Iraq is a multi-ethnic state, but it is also a founding member of the Arab League and an integral part of the Arab world.

Last month Iraq hosted a meeting of the Arab Parliamentary Union, bringing the leaders of Arab parliaments and consultative counsels to Iraq for the first major inter-Arab meeting since 1990. It was noteworthy that the meeting was held in the Kurdish city of Irbil under the recently redesigned Iraqi flag, highlighting both the remarkable prosperity and stability of Iraq's Kurdish region and the presence of the Iraqi federal state.

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XXX Iraqi federal state.

CROCKER: We hope that this event will encourage more active Arab engagements with Iraq, and we expect that Prime Minister Maliki's effort against Shia extremist militias in Basra will receive Arab support.

The presence of the PKK terrorist organization in the remote mountains of Iraq along the Turkish border have produced tension between Turkey and Iraq and led to a Turkish cross-border operation in February, including movement of Turkish ground forces into Iraq.

At the same time, both governments are working to strengthen their ties, and Iraqi President Talabani made a successful visit to Turkey in March.

Syria plays an ambivalent role. We have seen evidence of efforts to interdict some foreign fighters seeking to transit Syria to Iraq, but others continues to cross the border. Syria also harbors individuals who finance and support the Iraqi insurgency.

Iran continues to undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government to establish a stable, secure state through the authority -- through the training of criminal militia elements engaged in violence against Iraqi security forces, coalition forces, and Iraqi civilians.

The extent of Iran's malign influence was dramatically demonstrated when militia elements armed and trained by Iran clashed with Iraqi government forces in Basra and Baghdad.

When the president announced the surge, he pledged to seek and destroy Iranian-supported lethal networks inside Iraq. We know more about those networks and their Quds Force sponsors than ever before, and we will continue to aggressively uproot and destroy them.

At the same time, we support constructive relations between Iran and Iraq and are participating in a tripartite process to discuss the security situation in Iraq. Iran has a choice to make.

Looking ahead, Mr. Chairman, almost everything about Iraq is hard. It will continue to be hard as Iraqis struggle with the damage and trauma inflicted by 35 years of totalitarian Baathist rule.

But hard does not mean hopeless, and the political and economic progress of the past few months is significant. These gains are fragile, however, and they are reversible.

Americans have invested a great deal in Iraq in blood as well as treasure and they have the right to ask whether this is worth it, whether it is now time to walk away and let the Iraqis fend for themselves.

Iraq has the potential to develop into a stable, secure, multiethnic, multi-sectarian democracy under the rule of law. Whether it realizes that potential is ultimately up to the Iraqi people. Our support, however, will continue to be critical.

I said in September that I cannot guarantee success in Iraq. That is still the case, although I think we are closer.

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XXX we are closer.

CROCKER: I remain convinced that a major departure from our current engagement would bring failure, and we have to be clear with ourselves about what failure would mean.

Al Qaida is in retreat in Iraq, but it is not yet defeated. Al Qaida's leaders are looking for every opportunity they can to hang on. Osama bin Laden has called Iraq the perfect base and it reminds us that a fundamental aim of Al Qaida is to establish itself in the Arab world. It almost succeeded in Iraq. We cannot allow it a second chance.

And it is not only Al Qaida that would benefit. Iran has said publicly it will fill any vacuum in Iraq and extremist Shia militias would reassert themselves. We saw them try in Basra and Baghdad two weeks ago.

And in all of this, the Iraqi people would suffer on a scale far beyond what we have already seen. Spiraling conflict could draw in neighbors with devastating consequences for the region and the world.

Mr. Chairman, as monumental as the events of the last five years have been in Iraq, Iraqis, Americans and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened. In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came.

Our current course is hard, but it is working. Progress is real, although still fragile. We need to stay with it.

Mr. Chairman, in the months ahead, we will continue to assist Iraq as it pursues further steps toward reconciliation and economic development. Over time, this will become increasingly an Iraqi process, as it should be.

Our efforts will focus on increasing Iraq's integration regionally and internationally, assisting Iraqi institutions locally and nationally, to strengthen the political process and promote economic activity, and supporting the United Nations as Iraq carries out local elections toward the end of the year.

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XXX of the year.

CROCKER: These efforts will require an enhanced civilian commitment and continued support from the Congress and the American people.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I want to recognize and thank all those who serve our country in Iraq, military and civilian. Their courage and commitment at great sacrifice has earned the admiration of all Americans. They certainly have mine, and it is my honor to be there with them.

Thank you, sir.


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