EXCLUSIVE: U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Discusses Nation's Future

March 20, 2006 — -- Three years after the United States invaded Iraq, there are mixed emotions about the success of the U.S. mission there.

"World News Tonight" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas interviewed the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to discuss the challenges that lie ahead. As ambassador to Afghanistan, Khalilzad helped build a government in another war-torn country. Now he will play a pivotal role in the success or failure of the new Iraqi government.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

ELIZABETH VARGAS: Mr. Ambassador, given the state of affairs in Iraq today, is this where you thought we would be three years after the United States invaded Iraq?

AMBASSADOR ZALMAY KHALILZAD Well, one hoped that one would be in a better situation than one is in right now. Iraq has come through a very difficult period, and it's still in a difficult situation. But something important is being done here to build a democratic a rule of law, increasing prosperous country in the Middle East. It's not easy but it's very important we're working very hard to achieve that goal. We're making progress, but it's a difficult situation that we are in.

VARGAS: When you and I last spoke it was on the eve of the historic elections in December in Iraq. A full three months after those elections the Iraqis have yet to form a new government. What is taking so long?

KHALILZAD: Right. Well, first, results of the election were not finalized until the Feb. 12. And then the process got affected negatively, delayed by the attack that took place on the shrine, on the Golden Mosque. But they are dealing with difficult issues. They are trying to form a government of national unity, agree on a program, agree on processes for decision making. There is not a lot of tradition for compromising. So it's not easy for them, given the background from which they come.

But I think it's very important that they get the government right. This is the single most important issue that Iraq faces right now and if they get the government right, Iraq will be put on the right trajectory. So we need to be patient with them but keep pressuring them as I have been doing, to get on with it.

VARGAS:How concerned are you that this slow pace is leaving the country wide open for exploitation and violence?

KHALILZAD: Sure, well, you're absolutely right. This is a particular period of vulnerability. The terrorists who are seeking to provoke a civil war find the particular circumstances now, which is there is no government of national unity -- a particularly good period for them to exploit the vacuum that exists of authority to a degree. Finally, in the course of the last week, I can say that they have made progress. Prior to that, things were not going very well. They are meeting frequently. I am optimistic that they will make the right decision, forming a government of national unity in the coming weeks.

VARGAS: The former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said over the weekend that he thought Iraq was already mired in the civil war. He said, "If this is not a civil war then God knows what a civil war is." What's your reaction?

KHALILZAD: Well, there is the sectarian tensions and there is sectarian killing. Civil war, in my judgment, is not here yet. A civil war will take place if the state institutions that exist disintegrate or they decide to choose sides and fight each other. And that has not happened. But people are getting killed. Some are getting killed because of their sectarian beliefs. But I think to call it a civil war at the present time I think would be inaccurate. But the potential for increased sectarian violence is there, and terrorists are seeking to provoke it.

VARGAS: Since the bombing of the mosque in Samara many of the Shiites say they cannot trust you because they consider you to be Sunni and consider you to be biased toward the Sunnis. Do you think you still have enough clout to pull these two sides together into some sort of coalition?

KHALILZAD: Well, they, they have to do it not only because of me or the United States, but they have to do it because that's what the situation requires. The country is bleeding. Iraqis want their leaders to rise to the occasion, to form a government of national unity. I am pushing that on behalf of the United States and for the sake of a successful Iraq because Iraq's success is important for the future of the Middle East. And the future of the Middle East is important for the future of the world.