BAGHDAD (Reuters) - On a farewell trip to northern Iraq this week, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was hailed by Kurdish leaders as a “comrade in arms” who helped liberate them, but his legacy is a mixed one for Iraq.
As he prepared to leave the country this week, Khalilzad said he remained proud of his role in toppling Saddam Hussein, both working behind the scenes with Iraqi exiles before the March 2003 invasion and as ambassador in the past 21 months.
However, violence has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since his arrival and sectarian divisions appear as wide as ever. Khalilzad said the basic problems for his successor in Iraq will be the same ones he faced.
“I wish the situation was different,” Khalilzad told reporters during his trip to Kurdistan. “It’s not as good as I would have liked, but I think the leaders of Iraq need to make the decisions that need to be made, particularly the Sunni and Shi’ite leaders. The compromises need to be made.”
As a Sunni Muslim, Khalilzad was viewed with suspicion from the start by many Shi’ites in Iraq who accused him of bias.
In a joint interview with Reuters and two other agencies on Sunday, he said much of the criticism directed at him was part of the push and pull of delicate negotiations.
Khalilzad said he had spent many late nights “drinking tea” with Iraqi politicians, emphasizing the need for urgent action, telling them at times “we are very impatient people, you know the politics back home, and we want to see results”.
“Our sense of time and the sense of time of the people of this region are not identical,” he said.
President Bush launched a new Iraq strategy in January, sending 30,000 extra troops, and he is under growing pressure to set a timetable for the withdrawal of troops.
Aides say Khalilzad has been hurrying to tick off accomplishments before he leaves, shuttling between leaders to press issues such as an oil law and amendment of a law banning members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from public sector jobs.
Reforming the law is a key demand of Sunni Arabs, the once- dominant minority under Saddam who now feel marginalized.
“There is a lot of hard work as we speak and I anticipate in the near term there may be agreement on that,” Khalilzad said.
“I recognized from the beginning when I came that the big issue was to get an agreement among Iraqis on the basic issues that divide the country,” he said. “The definition of the problem as I saw it has not changed, some elements have become more important than others as I complete my tour.”
“It’s fundamentally heading in the right direction but there are significant challenges. I’m optimistic with the changes that I see in recent months.”
At a reception on Saturday held by Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki, Khalilzad struck an idealistic note, invoking the “big idea” of living in democracy and prosperity, a vision he said was as realistic for the Middle East as for America.
Khalilzad, who is awaiting confirmation as ambassador to the United Nations, also said it was wrong to leave Saddam in power after the first Gulf War in 1991. “I felt that we did the wrong thing in terms of leaving Iraq with sanctions and Saddam.”
In the nearly two years since he arrived in Baghdad, after 18 months as ambassador in his native Afghanistan, violence in Iraq has spiraled to the point where more than 34,000 civilians were killed last year, according to U.N. figures.
“National reconciliation” between Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, not to mention smaller groups such as Turkmen and Christians, is a mantra often invoked but not much in evidence.
“The issue remains still how to get to a national compact,” Khalilzad said in Sunday’s interview.
Khalilzad referred to Iraq as a place of conspiracy theories and suspicion, and said his style had always been to engage — a style he would employ at the United Nations too if confirmed.
“If it (the U.N.) loses credibility with the people or it doesn’t adapt to the changed environment, it could become increasingly irrelevant,” he said.
“I want to avoid that because I think the United Nations is a very important institution for the world.”
Asked about his future during the visit to Kurdistan, he struck a lighter note: “I always have a letter of resignation in my drawer when I start a job.”