“Tony Al-Snow” is what members of the White House press corps were privately dubbing the top government spokesman for Iraq after this morning’s gaggle (early morning briefing). Much like Tony Snow himself, Dr. Ali Al-Dabbagh charmed the normally hard-bittten White House correspondents with well-sculpted answers to difficult questions, polish and graciousness.
In what may well be an unprecedented session in the annals of briefings at the White House, the spokesman for Iraq fielded questions by the reporters who cover the President. Acting Press Secretary Dana Perino deferred to “a special guest” and yielded the podium to Dr. Al-Dabbagh, who has been in Washington for several days meeting with members of the U.S. press. On Tuesday, for example, he sat down with members of a regular conservative bloggers’ group at the Heritage Foundation.
“[A]re you more than just the press spokesperson?” asked Jim McTague of Barron’s Business, pointing out that if the U.S. was going to send somebody to talk to another country about its relationships, “they would hardly send the White House press spokesperson.. . .Are you some kind of diplomat as well? Why are you here?”
Al-Dabbagh replied that his mission was “to convey the message of the Iraqi people to the Americans. I’m not a diplomat. . .I am representing the Iraqi government as well as Iraqi people, in order to convey the truth and reality.”
He then proceeded to take the tough question about what is perhaps the most incendiary issue in the minds of Americans: his country and what the U.S. is doing there.
When I asked him about the criticism that actual U.S. aid never really filters down to the ground from the Ministries of Defense and Interior and what Bagdad is doing in response, Dr. Al-Dabbagh told me: “[S]ince this government, the level of accountability has been raised, the transparencies being raised. Definitely we had problems due to the 35 years [of Saddam Hussein], and then one more, four years or three more years [since the fall of Saddam] which keep the situation and the accountability much less.”
But, he quickly added, there is much more accountability now. As Al-Dabbagh told me, “You could find that corruption comes down to the minimum level, but still there is corruption [that] the Iraqi government is fighting and the Integrity Commission is working on [with] full authority.”
Asked if his own people feel the ongoing U.S. troop surge is working and whether Democrats are right in calling for a troop withdrawal by early next year, the official voice of Iraq did not flinch.
“The Iraqis are represented by the parliament and the government — elected government,” Al-Dabbagh said, “And the troops are as per the invitation of the government. . . What you saw in Najaf, [demonstrations calling for the U.S. to get out of Iraq], few thousands come out. And this is freedom of expression. It is good, rather than attacking America. .. [B]ut at the end, [a] majority of Iraqis, they do appreciate what the troops have done.”
Pressed about when the Iraqis in uniform will be able to fully take over security and defense, Al-Dabbagh said “there is a time schedule, which we, the Iraqi government, had implemented in order to have the security forces, Iraqi security forces, well-trained and ready to transfer. We [have] transfer of control in different [provincial and local] governments. We have on 17th of April, Maysan government will be transferred to Iraqis, and so on until the end of the year. By that time, we feel that there will be a good situation that the Iraqi that . . .will open the door for negotiating about the withdrawal of the Americans.”
As to what would happen if U.S. troops left early next year, Al-Dabbagh characterized it as “premature withdrawal” and warned that it would be a “great gift” for those behind the bombing of the Iraqi parliament yesterday, that it “will make a vacuum of power in Iraq, which is not desirable by anyone. That is why we feel that a job should be done collectively between us and the international troops in order to put the Iraqi forces ready to take responsibility.”
The inevitable question as to whether Iraq is in the middle of a civil war was put to its top spokesman.
“Never,” he answered without hesitation, “There is a war against civilians. There is a war against Iraqi people. There are groups which they want to destroy Iraq and to destroy the region, to destroy all Iraq. That is what you see in al Anbar. It’s a few Sunnis, but then there are Iraq attacking those. And in Bagdad it’s a common — yesterday, what you saw in the parliament. . . .all Iraqis are represented there, but they had [an] attack. So it is not a civil war at all.”