U.S. ambassador in Baghdad Ryan Crocker is urging Turkey to demonstrate "strategic patience" over recent attacks by Kurdish fighters inside Iraq, warning that a cross-border Turkish military strike is exactly what the PKK rebels are trying to provoke. Such an action, he told TIME in an interview on the eve of Friday's meeting in Turkey between Iraq and its neighbors, would be "highly destabilizing" in Iraq, and would not necessarily achieve the results desired by Turkey.
Crocker also cited progress in reconciling Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite communities during the two months since he and General David Petraeus reported to Congress. Despite recent Bush Administration saber-rattling on Iran, Crocker also said that he expects to hold another round of talks with Iranian officials about mutual concerns in Iraq. He credits the U.S. troop surge for some of the success in driving Osama bin Laden's followers from Anbar province, but admits, "al-Qaeda is not defeated."
TIME: What are the latest changes you see in Iraq?
Crocker: The change in Anbar is the most dramatic. Levels of violence in Anbar are down to just about nothing. Fallujah and Ramadi, which became like Beirut in the early '80s synonyms for unchecked violence and terror, are two of the quietest cites in Iraq right now. The Anbaris stood up against al-Qaeda. That was occasioned, of course, in large part by al-Qaeda's own excesses they provoked a counterreaction. But I'm not sure that would have happened, or would have had the effect it did, if it hadn't been for the surge. The tribes knew that they weren't going to be alone in this.
TIME: Anything else?
Crocker: That phenomenon; al-Qaeda excesses elsewhere; people just being tired of years of violence, wanting something better; the surge it all started to multiply, through Baghdad, Diyala, the whole area around Baghdad, and it happened quick. I came in March, these kinds of things we're seeing now you couldn't even imagine then. This doesn't mean it's success. It's not. I wouldn't say we've turned a corner. There are huge challenges out there. Al-Qaeda is not defeated. But it really is different now.
TIME: What about political progress?
Crocker: The Iraqi government moved pretty quickly to try and take advantage of this change and consolidate it. There are now about 25,000 young Sunnis in Anbar who are wearing the uniforms of the Iraqi police and getting their salary from the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad to keep the peace in Anbar province. You have some political movement you just didn't see before. The Sunni vice president went down to Najaf in October and called on Ayatollah Sistani. Ammar al-Hakim, the heir apparent to Abdulaziz [al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shi'ite party in the government], went out to Ramadi to visit the [Sunni] sheikhs of Anbar. The sheikhs of Kerbala and Anbar have had two big meetings together, Shia and Sunni, and the two governors are coordinating on security arrangements for the Haj [the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca]. There is a new dynamic going on. The dynamic has become clearer. We were seeing the beginning of this before the testimony [to Congress] and referred to it, but it has become considerably more pronounced since then.
TIME: Yet, the Iraqi government still hasn't moved on key U.S. benchmarks, like de-Ba'athification reform.
Crocker: What we are seeing is national reconciliation, not through national legislation, but through actual reconciliation. There is a lot of dysfunction in the Iraqi government. There is no question about it. You see it as they grapple with these major pieces of legislation. They need to show they can do a better, more focused job on this.
TIME: How do you see Iran and the Shi'ite issue now?
Crocker: You have Iranian influence, which is extremely negative. But even there, you see among the Shi'ites a reflection of what you see among the Sunnis. It is not as dramatic, but it's there.
TIME: How do you read the situation in northern Iraq with the Turkish threats?
Crocker: The north, clearly a problem. The PKK found ungoverned space, and they are using it to carry out a terror campaign against Turkey. It is not a sustainable situation. Something is going to have to give here. We think it's very important that something comes through efforts by the Iraqis and others as appropriate to find ways to shut them down and eventually get them out, not through Turkish military strikes.
TIME: What do you tell Turkey about how you will handle it?
Crocker: It's the Iraqis who are going to handle it. They are talking about steps to try to interdict the flow of goods and people into and out of that area. Heightened security at airports to ensure they are not flying in from Europe, going through the airport and going into the mountains. Arresting them where they can be found. Tightening down with a view to disrupting their ability to organize up there.
TIME: Does that address Turkey's concerns?
Crocker: What we tell the Turks is, look, we understand your outrage. We share it. But you also have to think about consequences. If you are thinking about a military action, will it work? Will it achieve your end result? And what about unintended consequences? I think the PKK is trying to trigger a Turkish military action. That's why they are doing this. Why? So that the Turks will do something that will really inflame Kurdish opinion in eastern Turkey. And give them what they lost in '99, which is an environment where they can resume a presence and operations inside Turkey. That's what they want. That's obviously what the Turks would presumably have an interest in not giving them. Again, it's going to take some strategic patience.
TIME: What are the unintended consequences for the U.S. and Iraq?
Crocker: It could be highly destabilizing in Iraq as well. I can't go off into wild hypotheticals. It would depend on what they did. But you are talking about a large-scale military operation. Large-scale military operations have consequences.
TIME: Are you going to talk to Iran again?
Crocker: I expect we will have another round. I can't say when. I'm certainly open to do it.
TIME: What's holding it up?
Crocker: It comes at the initiative of the Iraqis. I told them I'd be prepared to sit down. They'll tell me when.
TIME: Is Iran resisting?
Crocker: I really don't know.