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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Progress and Pain Marked Envoy's Tenure in Iraq

Robert Ford, who helped bring the Sunnis back into the political process, is shipping out.

June 03, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Robert Ford, the top political advisor in the U.S. Embassy here, can pinpoint his worst day in Iraq: Jan. 4, 2005, when he learned that the governor of Baghdad had been gunned down. The capital lost an ambitious and energetic leader, and he lost a friend.

The governor, Ali Haidari, had been targeted before, in an assassination attempt that destroyed the armored car the U.S. had given him. Ford says he had advised Haidari to take a couple of weeks off, or at the very least vary his routes and schedule until a new armored vehicle arrived.

But Haidari would have none of it. "He would say: 'I will not let these bastards beat us. I will not.' "

The death strengthened Ford's conviction that bringing a measure of peace to Iraq would take more than just putting a few good people in the right slots.

Ford, who is scheduled to leave the country this weekend, believed that Iraq faced the prospect of a decades-long struggle to overcome the politics of bombs and bullets, of armed Shiite Muslim gangs fighting Sunni Muslims and Kurds fighting Arabs.

Among the group of so-called State Department Arabists, who were originally sidelined by the neoconservative Pentagon planners of the war, Ford rose to prominence in his three years here. His quiet ascent illustrated a mid-course adjustment of Washington's Iraq strategy, one that sought to recognize and influence the country's social and ethnic cleavages instead of merely targeting "the bad guys."

"We can set up an administration with the help of the United Nations that runs a really good election process," Ford said in a recent interview before heading to Washington for possible confirmation as the next ambassador to Algeria. "Yet in the end, people will still retreat to a sectarian identity because they're under threat of car bombs, they're under threat of death squads operating at night."

Ford, a Denver native considered one of the foremost Arabic speakers in the U.S. Foreign Service, was posted to Egypt, Algeria and Bahrain before arriving in Iraq, first as the nowdefunct occupation authority's representative in the Shiite city of Najaf and later as political counselor to Ambassador John D. Negroponte, a position he retained when Zalmay Khalilzad took over the embassy last year.

Ford's understated, even folksy, style probably increased his influence over the embassy's Bush administration loyalists. He retained an idealism about democracy amid a realism about the limits of what was possible -- especially in the short time frame of a diplomatic tour.

It was Ford who helped spearhead the effort to coax Sunni Arabs to take part in elections in December. The minority sect had lost the power and prestige it enjoyed under Saddam Hussein and had boycotted the January 2005 parliamentary vote, with disastrous results. Shiites and Kurds used their outsized victory to consolidate control over the nation's security organs and began settling scores with Sunnis, further inflaming the insurgency.

When December's election results showed high turnouts in the mostly Sunni provinces of Al Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin, it was the high point of Ford's Iraq experience.

"We realized that we had really turned a corner with Sunni Arab communities," he said. "If you had told me we were going to get a voter turnout of 75% of Anbar, I wouldn't have believed it."

Ford said he was not sure whether it would have made any difference if the Arabists had gained influence earlier.

In retrospect, he said, Iraq was so damaged when the U.S. got here, there was little the diplomats could have done to stop the rise of the armed groups and divisive politics that characterize the nation today.

"Saddam in a sense wiped out political culture," Ford said. "Saddam in a very real sense totally screwed up the economy. And bringing in a bunch of Arabists in 2003 wouldn't have changed those things."

The nation Ford leaves behind is a conundrum. Politically it appears to have made enormous strides, hurtling past milestone after milestone, from the July 2003 establishment of the Governing Council to local and national elections and the drafting of a constitution to the naming of a Cabinet by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki last month.

But in many respects, it teeters on the verge of a vast chasm, steadily torn asunder by insurgent and militia violence and deepening religious rifts. Ford says the U.S. presence here insulted Iraqis' sense of national pride from the start, always making the mission a race against the clock.

"We knew that the longer it took to get Iraq stood up, the more likely we were going to get hostile negative reactions from Iraqis in general," he said. "We didn't know when the clock would, you know, strike midnight. But we knew that there was a certain point at which it would be untenable for us to stay here."

Ford deflected questions on whether he was Democrat or Republican, an early supporter of the invasion or an opponent. Still, he noted that he and his diplomat wife, Alison Barkley, signed on twice to the Iraq assignment, which entails 90-hour workweeks, housing in a two-room Green Zone trailer and nightly barrages of mortar rounds.

"We all volunteer," he said. "Nobody is sent here against their will."

The importance of the mission made the sacrifices worthwhile, he said.

"What we cannot have here is an Iraq that is a failed state sitting at the top of the Persian Gulf," with people saying, " 'That's democracy and look what it did. It destroyed Iraq,' " he said. "We need just the opposite."

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