By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 23, 2009
BAGHDAD, Jan. 22 -- Ryan C. Crocker, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warned Thursday that a precipitous withdrawal of American troops runs "some very serious risks," from the resurgence of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to a collapse of faith in a nascent Iraqi state that still faces what he called "enormous challenges."
A loss of confidence, Crocker said, could create a "chilling effect," where people "pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms and get ready for what comes next. I'm not saying that that would happen; but I am saying these are dangers that could happen."
The remarks from an ambassador ending his nearly two-year tenure underlined the deep concern among U.S. officials here that progress in the country is, in Crocker's words, "still fragile, still reversible." They come from a diplomat with decades of experience in the region who has made a trademark of sober assessments, in contrast to some of his predecessors, who at times tended toward unfounded optimism.
The Obama administration has set a goal of withdrawing the 142,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq within 16 months, although some may be left behind to protect U.S. diplomats and other officials, train Iraqi security forces and conduct some military operations. That would be faster than the deadline of the end of 2011 for a complete American pullout, as outlined in a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that went into effect Jan. 1.
Crocker repeatedly said he believed the withdrawal would be conducted responsibly, a word frequently employed by administration officials in describing the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq. But his remarks suggested that a debate will ensue over the pace of the troop pullout.
Iraqi officials have said the United States has yet to convey to them a detailed timetable for a withdrawal. But Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim, at a news conference Thursday, said the military was prepared for any contingency.
"We cannot leave our country whether [U.S.] troops withdraw from it or not," he said. "We are here, and we have our plans prepared for the worst."
The meeting with journalists at the new U.S. Embassy was a farewell for Crocker, a Foreign Service officer whose career has taken him from the most tumultuous years in Lebanon -- he was in the U.S. Embassy there when it was bombed in 1983 -- to the peak of Iraq's chaos and sectarian bloodletting when he arrived in March 2007.
His style diverged from that of his predecessors, including L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Bremer was a familiar face who wore combat boots and suits, a kind of imperial chic. Khalilzad also became well known among Iraqis. Though a fluent Arabic speaker, Crocker kept a lower profile; on a recent day, hardly anyone in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood was familiar with his name.
But he seemed to draw a deep loyalty from his staff, culled from embassies across the Middle East, who appeared to share his sense of the country. A U.S. official quoted an adage he attributed to Crocker about politics in Iraq: "Everything here is harder than you think it is, everything will take longer, and something will come along to screw it up."
Iraq is far different today from what it was in 2006 and 2007, a period that Iraqis sometimes elliptically refer to as "the events." Others, more bluntly, call it the sectarian war. While Baghdad and parts of Iraq remain remarkably violent -- bombings still punctuate any day in the capital -- the breathtaking bloodshed that marked that period has fitfully receded.
Ironically, Crocker said, as that violence has diminished, unresolved conflicts have come into sharper relief: tension between Arabs and Kurds, a debate over power-sharing between the federal government and the provinces, and divisions within Iraq's sectarian and ethnic communities.
The country faces a series of elections, beginning with provincial voting Jan. 31, which could inaugurate a democratic tradition but could also unleash tension as factions mobilize supporters along ethnic and sectarian fault lines. By year's end, Iraqis are to elect a new parliament, which will choose the prime minister.
Crocker alternated between a sense of accomplishment for a state of relative calm that he deemed almost unthinkable 18 months ago and repeated caveats that progress could still unravel, particularly with a quick U.S. withdrawal.
He warned that Iran and Syria could perceive a vacuum and carry out their "less-than-benign intentions," while efforts toward national reconciliation could be set aside.
Al-Qaeda, he said, was waiting for an opportunity to regroup. "If we were to decide suddenly we are done, it would certainly work to use that space that that opened up to do just that," he said of the group, which he described as "incredibly tenacious."
"Almost anything is possible here," he added.
Crocker said he expected to depart Baghdad in two weeks, when he will retire.
"My plan is not to have a plan," he added.