Like Spencer Ackerman, I was struck by the candor and clarity of Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s remarks when I interviewed him in Baghdad last week. In fact, I wish I could have included more of what Crocker said in the print version of the piece.
Ackerman’s right about Crocker’s obvious frustration with Maliki–but that doesn’t mean the Ambassador has any illusions about replacing the current Iraqi government…although, according to Crocker, Maliki himself seems to be looking to build a new coalition that does not include Muqtada al-Sadr. That has also been a Bush Administration dream, but–in another refreshing bit of candor–Crocker has his doubts: “They take so long to negotiate new governments here, I’m not sure it’s worth it,” he told me.
In fact, any Iraqi government that doesn’t include the Sadrists is likely to fail–given Muqtada’s popularity with the Shi’ite masses. Crocker’s assessment of Sadr is equally clear-eyed. The question of whether Sadr is friend or foe “is his decision,” the Ambassador told me. And there’s a bright line test of Sadr’s intentions: whether he publicly denounces that Mahdi Army Special Groups–the terrorist wing of his militia–who’ve been getting arms and training from Iran and have been mortaring the Green Zone, including the US embassy, most nights. Petraeus has said that it’s his intention to move against the Special Groups–who are the Shi’ite terrorist bookends to Al Qaeda in Iraq–and over the weekend there was a battle in Sadr City between U.S. forces and Mahdi Army elements.
In the end, Crocker and Petraeus have the same hope: that the Sunni and Shi’ite terrorists can be isolated and brought under control over the next few months, which might–might–create the conditions for a more general Iraqi reconciliation. Crocker knows that’s a long shot. And even if some semblance of order can be achieved, he has no illusions about our ability to dictate the nature of the Iraqi government that emerges.
Crocker has spent more than a quarter-century in the region. He speaks Arabic and Farsi…and, perhaps more important, he speaks unadorned, thoughtful, no-bull English. He is, without question, the most impressive American diplomat I’ve met in some time.