- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s political leaders have asked at least one Sunni Saddam-era general to consider returning to Iraq from abroad to run the powerful Ministry of Defense, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said yesterday.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also has given his approval, in principle, to a new security plan for Baghdad prepared by U.S. and Iraqi advisers, Mr. Khalilzad told The Washington Times in an interview at his office in Baghdad.

The plan, still being fine-tuned, stresses ways to identify those behind the violence in the capital — including militias, gangs and terrorists — and make the cost of their actions prohibitive.

Mr. al-Maliki also intends to tighten up Iraq’s porous border with Iran, in an attempt to stop the flow of terrorists and sophisticated weapons into the country, the ambassador said.

A Sunni source close to several exiled generals who served in dictator Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with some of those generals during a late February visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss a return to Iraq.

State Department officials said they were “not aware” of such a meeting.

“I think that a couple of people have come from abroad for interviews that I’m aware of,” Mr. Khalilzad said in his modest but comfortable office in what was once one of Saddam’s elaborate palaces.

“One is a former general, Nuri Al-Dulemi, and also another retired general, Mr. Rubaie,” the ambassador said.

Mr. Duleimi, a Sunni, is living in the United Arab Emirates, and Mr. Rubaie is living in Britain. The ambassador did not provide Mr. Rubaie’s first name.

Government officials have said they most likely would pick a Sunni to lead the Defense Ministry and a Shi’ite to lead the Interior Ministry.

Mr. al-Maliki, a tough-talking Shi’ite who was sworn in with his Cabinet last week, has made security his top priority. But he has struggled to reach a governmentwide consensus on who should lead the two top security posts and, yesterday, failed to meet a deadline for filling the portfolios.

Mr. Khalilzad said the search likely would take a few more days, but cautioned that the political process — although it has helped divide the Sunni-driven insurgency — would not be enough to end an uprising that has left thousands dead.

“For the insurgency to end, there has to be a program of national reconciliation with emphasis on unity, for the insurgents have to be engaged and convinced to lay down their arms,” the ambassador said.

“And for the other unauthorized military formations and militias, there has to be a decommissioning demobilization and reintegration plan. There have to be steps with regards to de-Ba’athification. There has to be an overall plan with different elements and sequenced appropriately to end this conflict.”

Mr. Khalilzad said that Mr. al-Maliki had, in principle, approved a plan presented to him by U.S. and Iraqi officials on Thursday for enhancing security in Baghdad.

“It’s going to be operationalized, turned into an operational plan, in the coming period and then taken back to him for final approval,” he said.

“The key issue is how to convince those involved in these sectarian killings and so on that it’s risky business to get involved in this. And those will be punished, to deter them, because you can’t prevent [it], you can’t have security forces protecting each house in Baghdad, so the strategy has to have the intent of deterring people from doing this.”

The ambassador said Iran has become a corridor into Iraq for terrorists coming from Pakistan and Afghanistan and is providing training and money for terrorist groups in Iraq.

“I am not alleging that that is being facilitated by the government of Iran, but they do come through. But I believe that with Ansar al-Sunnah, it would be surprising that the government did not know of their presence in northwest Iran and coming across,” he said.

The terrorist group Ansar al-Sunnah, which is linked to al Qaeda, operates in northern Iraq along the Iran border.

“Iran has some negative aspects with regard to its policy here. It has ties to extremists, including some militias. It supports some of these extremist groups and militias with arms, including the deadly EFP technology,” he said, referring to explosively formed projectiles, a particularly lethal form of bomb technology being used against U.S. forces in Iraq. “[Iran] provides money; it provides training. This is not good for Iraq; it’s not good for the world.”

Mr. Khalilzad is largely credited for having shepherded the Iraqi national elections and government-forming process through a series of sectarian and ethnic hurdles.

He said he never doubted that all the factions would come together.

“There were times that I thought this was taking too long, that they had to accelerate the process, come to a decision at a faster pace, but no, never that they would never come to an agreement. The question was not whether, but when,” he said.

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