May 10, 2007
By Robin Wright, Washington Post Staff Writer
In a sign of growing tensions between Washington and Baghdad, Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said yesterday that the United States needs to give Iraq more "time and space" to take pivotal military and political steps and to stop making plans based on "the Washington clock."
Although U.S. troops could eventually redeploy to forward bases in Iraq and the region, he said, a U.S. presence will be needed until Iraq builds not just an army, but also an air force and a navy, which could take decades.
"We will need coalition forces for the foreseeable future," he said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Post. "Building an air force to own our air and to be able to defend Iraq cannot be done overnight, or in months. It will take decades to build an air force and to build a navy." He added: "People are trying to fit or to sync the Iraqi clock to the Washington clock, and this is all about Iraq. This is not about Washington. We need to sync the Washington clock to the Baghdad clock."
Rubaie is one of several senior Iraqi officials now in Washington or expected soon as part of Baghdad's campaign to get Democratic lawmakers to ease the pressure on the White House to have a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But Rubaie's trip has only accentuated the differences between the Democratic-controlled Congress and Baghdad -- and the increasing dispute over a timeline for the U.S. military presence.
In what one congressional staffer described as a clash of cultures, Rubaie insisted that he had convinced key members of Congress that U.S. troops should be kept in Iraq until "conditions allow," while Democratic lawmakers said they emphasized to Rubaie the urgent need for Iraq to do more politically to reconcile the Sunni and Shiite factions and to get ready for U.S. troop withdrawals.
"There is a disconnect," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "He tries to change the subject from a political settlement, which is in their hands, to building a navy or air force and educating the Iraqi people on democracy. . . . The Iraqi clock may govern Iraqi conduct, but Washington's clock has to govern Washington's conduct."
Levin, Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) are among the Democrats who have talked to Rubaie about redeployment. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) has also talked with him.
Rubaie said he thought that he had prodded his interlocutors, particularly Murtha, into recognizing the need for a more gradual approach. "We agreed that the Iraqi government should embark on a plan to speed up the training and equipping the Iraqi security forces and accelerating the process of generating the conditions for the departure of foreign forces . . . as soon as is practical, which is as conditions allow," Rubaie said.
But Murtha said yesterday that he has not budged from his position that the United States has to start redeploying by September. "I told him that the Iraqis must ultimately take control of their own security situation," Murtha said. "My ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War against the largest army in the world at that time. They were considered a ragtag military force, and yet they prevailed. I told Mr. Rubaie that I had faith in the Iraqi people, but that they, too, must ultimately have the will to prevail."
Rubaie also said that there are signs of growing success in the U.S.-Iraqi attempt to secure Baghdad. "Now, nobody is talking about sliding into a civil war, as we've been able to avoid it," he said. While acknowledging the sectarian tensions and killings, he insisted that the four-year war has not developed into a sectarian conflict.
Because Iraq is beginning discussions with four groups of Sunni insurgents, with a fifth expected to join, Rubaie said Iraq has only one enemy -- al-Qaeda and its affiliates. "Portraying the scene there as Shiite killing Sunni and Sunnis killing Shiites is totally untrue," he added. "What's true is that al-Qaeda and affiliates are using this tactic. . . . The goal of al-Qaeda is to draw Shiite extremists into the fight."
Rubaie, a physician and a member of the Dawa party who was in exile until after the fall of Saddam Hussein, said a second sign of success is that the number of bodies found in Baghdad in execution-style killings has dropped over the past six months, from 100 a day to 10 to 15.
Rubaie acknowledged the need to move on key reforms but resisted the idea of having to conform to a timetable or benchmarks, as Congress and the military have urged. "Ramming it down our throats by midnight on Sept. 15 -- 'If you don't do it, you're a total failure or useless' -- it won't work," he said. "It's not a culture of benchmarks. We try to do things, but we need our space, we need our time to grow into this naturally."