April 8, 2008— -- In an exclusive interview with "Nightline's" Terry Moran, the American Ambassador to Iraq said he was concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq.
When asked if Americans were in a "proxy war" with Iran, Ryan Crocker said, "It may be that the Iranians see it in that light, we certainly do not."
But he also added that "we don't want to have just what you describe as a proxy war with Iran inside Iraq, and that is why we are willing to sit down with Iran face to face for talks on Iraqi security at the invitation of the Iraqi government. We've had three rounds of those talks and we've told them we are ready to again."
Both Ambassador Crocker and the top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus stressed the importance of Arab involvement in Iraq and said American troops might be in Iraq for the long haul.
"We will need to be there for a while," Petraeus said, adding that "over time, the role of our forces and our presence will change."
Crocker described American involvement in Iraq as a "multi-year project."
In Senate testimony today, General Petraeus recommended suspending troop withdrawals after July, telling members of Congress that while progress in Iraq is "real," it was also "fragile and reversible."
But Petraeus told ABC news he was upbeat about gains Iraqis have made, citing rising oil revenues and participation in the global market as signs of improvement and steps toward self-government.
Crocker said that Americans were still a long way off from being able to withdraw from Iraq. In testimony to the US Senate today, he told Presidential candidate Sen. Obama, D-IL, that withdrawal in Iraq could begin when there is a "fair certitude that Iraq is able to carry its own development forward."
Expanding on that thought, Crocker told Moran that American troops could begin to withdrawal when "at its most basic level, Iraq can deal with security challenges on its own."
While Petraeus admits that there is still plenty of work to be done in Iraq, he said that he was not holding out for unrealistic or unattainable goals.
"I think the ambassador and I are actually minimalists. We're not looking for Jeffersonian Democracy," but adding that "Iraq is not there yet right now, and there is certainly more work to be done."
Petraeus acknowledged that even the most minimalist approach meant that the next president "is clearly going to have to deal with Iraq."