Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said Tuesday that he thinks the country is on the right track despite sporadic terrorist activity and a post-election political stalemate. The senior U.S. diplomat, soon to retire, held a farewell press event at the State Department.
Hill's appearance came only hours after a Baghdad suicide bombing killed scores of aspiring military recruits and as leading Iraqi politicians continued to struggle to form a government five months after national elections.
But Hill, back in Washington after 16 months in the difficult Baghdad post, insisted that stability is increasing and that sectarian conflict is not making a resurgence in Iraq as the U.S. combat role ends.
"We have the right strategy in Iraq," he said. "It's clearly going in the right direction. I would have been much happier today if there was a new government formed. I would be much happier if they were once again arguing with each other in the Council of Representatives. But that day will come."
Although reports from Iraq said Tuesday's attack bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq, Hill would not speculate on culpability for what he called a "horrific" act.
But he said the mainly Sunni Muslim faction no longer has the capability to attack and hold even a single building, and that heavy Sunni participation in the political process reflects its complete lack of popular support.
"I don't think there's much support at all. On the contrary, there's a sort of general revulsion at their behavior. I think what's important, and why we stress the idea of an inclusive government, while we stress the need to bring in Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds, and while we stress the need to build institutions, is precisely to forestall any reverse of the pattern I've just described," said Hill.
The U.S. envoy said the post-election political impasse has dragged on too long, generating public impatience along with concern among Iraqis about foreign meddling in the process, especially by neighboring Iran.
"Whatever role they're playing it's never helpful," he said. "And the Iranians, it seems, they don't understand that in the long-run, if they want a good relationship with Iraq - and to put it mildly they've have had a very troubled relationship with Iraq - in the long run, if they want a better relationship, they're going to have to do a better job of respecting Iraq's sovereignty."
Hill, formerly Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and a key player in U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, will leave government service next month for an post at the University of Denver. His successor at the Baghdad embassy will be veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, who, until last month, was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.