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Interview With Richard Engel of NBC News

Interview With Richard Engel of NBC News

Robert Zoellick, Deputy Secretary of State

Baghdad, Iraq
April 14, 2005

MR. ENGEL: There's been a lot of military action but not a lot of political vision on the ground. Sometimes it seems that the Sunnis are chronically disenfranchised and that there is no real plan to include them. Is there a plan to include them? Did you say you have to get the Sunnis involved in the mix? Everyone so far has talked about it and paid lip service to this fact, but it doesn't really seem to be happening. The speaker of the parliament is a Sunni but that's not a really important position and everyone understands. Did you bring that message home that we've got to have real power-sharing?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ZOELLICK: We talked about -- well, I wouldn't use the word power-sharing. I talk about an inclusive government. Now, remember, this is a democracy and so power-sharing is often when people are trying to allocate offices.

But it's interesting. I raised that question with the Sunni speaker and I got a very interesting response. His point was we really need to get beyond looking at particular religious communities. We've got people who may be from a Sunni background but they may be secular, and he was actually looking to try to build a process where you draw all the Iraqis together.

Now, having said that, with some of the other players, the ones who are Shia, the Prime Minister-designate or the Kurdish President, I think there was appreciation of the need to try to reach out in the process. And indeed, President Talabani told me about a Sunni delegation that had just come to see him of people that he thought were rather hardline against the government and now they're trying to come back into the fold.

So I don't mean to underestimate the difficulty and challenge of this. I mean, when you visit this country, you know, you see the destruction, you see some of the legacy of the past of Saddam Hussein. You've lived here. You know how hard this is and will be.

But I get a sense that things are moving in the right direction and I get a sense that this is going to be a very important year and I get a sense that the Iraqis -- and this may be the most important thing -- from the town council in Fallujah to the President of the country, the Iraqis are getting a sense that they are in charge of their own destiny. They want the support of the American people. They want the support of the American troops. I had kids waving when we went over with the helicopter and when we drove through in various vehicles, but at the same time you've got body armor. So you've got sort of that division that you have to sort of account for.

But the message that I got that I think was the most important one, these are people that are not waiting and sitting back. They've got challenges. They're going to have internal politics, as any democracy does, and here it's a new one. But, frankly, I think they're doing pretty well.

MR. ENGEL: We've seen two high-level visits, one from the Defense Department, the other from the State Department, two days in a row. Why? Why now? What's the purpose?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ZOELLICK: Well, I learned not to speak for cabinet secretaries since I used to be one, but in my case Secretary Rice thought it was very useful in this transition process for me to try to come out here early. I was just at a conference in Oslo related to Sudan and I'm going out to Sudan and, frankly, it worked out well, given the fact that we thought that the government would be in formation and we now do have the Presidency, Council and the Prime Minister-designate. But, you know, I hope in a matter of days or weeks that they will put together the cabinet and so there will be follow-up, and so I used the opportunity to talk with the Prime Minister-designate about some of the things that we hope to have on the economic agenda but also talk about the political formation because, again, you asked about the message. I was hoping that they would be of a mind to keep the momentum going, and they certainly are. That doesn't mean that this will be easy or automatic, but I didn't find a great conflict of views of where we hope the process will head and where they want it to head.

MR. ENGEL: Any concerns that it's taking so long, that the momentum that they gained during the elections is somewhat flagging?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ZOELLICK: You know, it's interesting. When I traveled in Europe last week, you know, this is a question that I got asked. And I tested with my Iraqi counterpart's a sense of the answer that I gave, which was to say, you know, sometimes when you have delays it's because people are talking past each other, but sometimes it's because they're doing hard political work. And in this case, for example, some of the Kurdish parties recognized that the step of the Presidency Council required a two-thirds vote so they were doing some hard bargaining on things further down in the process at that stage. At the same time, they recognized it was important to come together as they did.

So I don't think the time was poorly spent and I don't think the time will be poorly spent if it takes, you know, a little bit longer in terms of trying to put together a cabinet of 30-some people reflecting balance and competency. But I do think there is a sense that we shouldn't slow down, and that was certainly a message that I conveyed but I had a strong sense the Iraqis recognize that themselves.

MR. ENGEL: All right. And finally, if you -- I was just asked, given a question, if I could ask. As Israel fears the U.S. is going along with the European plan to tolerate a nuclear Iran, would the U.S. be willing to tolerate a nuclear Iran?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ZOELLICK: Well, our position on Iran is clear and I don't know about a European plan. I mean, we've been working with the Europeans to make sure that the Iranians do not develop any nuclear capabilities and don't have the uranium or the plutonium reprocessing capabilities, and that was what Secretary Rice worked out with the three key European countries -- Britain, France and Germany -- that are leading the effort on this.

So that is our policy and that's been the approach that we've been taking with the Europeans. But again, on that issue and others, there will be tough steps ahead. I don't expect the Iranians to cede easily on this, but I do feel we're better off being more closely aligned now with our European partners for that end.

MR. ENGEL: All right. I think that's the time I've been given, so thank you very much.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ZOELLICK: My pleasure. 2005/413

# # #

Released on April 14, 2005

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