TIME What does the current fighting mean for your ability to stabilize Iraq?
Of course, it hinders a lot of our efforts. That's why we really are determined to face what is happening in two ways. The first is the amnesty to get people to repent and come back and be part of Iraqi society and part of the political process. And the second is to deal with the outlaws according to the law. I have invited people if they haven't committed crimes to be part of the political process. At the same time, I remind them that people should throw down their arms and that outlaw militias are to be dismantled.
TIME Whom exactly are you fighting in Najaf and Sadr City?
It's a combination of Islamic extremists and, secondly, some of Saddam's loyalists, who have been part and parcel of the Saddam atrocities. And third, it's the common criminals who have been released from prison.
TIME Aren't you really fighting Muqtada al-Sadr's followers?
Well, I don't know. We really don't know. We have arrested a lot of people in Najaf, and when we ask them who they're with, they say they are not with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The crimes that have been committed have been quite obvious. You visit Basra now and see the destruction of the oil pipeline. Or if you go and ask the [families of the] people who were killed, the innocent bystanders, and you go and meet the families of the policemen who were killed in Najaf ... These are really acts of criminals. It's not a political action.
TIME Could this be considered a civil war, Iraqis fighting Iraqis?
It is not. Because after the war, Iraq was left with no institutions. Army, military, police, intelligence everything disappeared. So, of course, there was a vacuum. Outlaws, extremists, people take to the streets. This is what is happening. So I would not characterize this as Iraqis fighting Iraqis. We don't have Arabs fighting Kurds and Shi'ites fighting Sunnis. It is a group of terrorists, a group of outlaws, a group of Saddam loyalists trying to impose their dangerous values on the Iraqi people, trying to impose chaos. This is something we're going to stand against.
TIME What incentives can you give al-Sadr to join the political process? Are you prepared to grant him clemency?
Yes. We declared that he could be part of the political process if he wants. I say this again and again, and I continue to say it. If he believes that he possesses the loyalty of the Iraqi people, then he should wait for a few months and get elected by the people in January next year. It is no way to go by making these problems and at the same time claiming you represent the people. These are two contradictory things. It is better for him to be inside the political process rather than outside the political process and trying to force his way on the Iraqi people by using arms.
TIME In Najaf and Sadr City, is the counteroffensive mainly an American show?
That's not true. We have in the U.N. Security Council resolution procedures for creating liaison and coordination between the various Iraqi authorities and the multinational force, starting from the Cabinet down to the provinces. And the role of the multinational force in Najaf it's outside Najaf, it's not inside the city. There are Iraqi troops there, police. Let me put the record right. I spoke [Aug. 10] to the commander of the multinational troops, General [George] Casey, and he has no intention whatsoever of sending American troops into the Imam Ali shrine.