June 1, 2010

Interview in Iraqi Kurdish newspaper

This is the text of an interview I did with Kurdish newspaper. Read the online version here.

US withdrawal from Iraq is a mistake, ex-CIA officer to Kurdistan says
By Hawar Abdul-Razaq
May 29, 2010

ERBIL-Hewl√™r, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Lt Col Rick Francona is a former officer working in Iraqi Kurdistan for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. His work started in the 1990s after the Iraqi Kurds were granted a safe-haven, known as “No-Fly Zone” in the north of Iraq.

Since 1991, the Kurdistan region has been governed by two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Massoud Barzani, president of Kurdistan, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, who holds the ceremonial post of Iraq’s president. “I worked with the KDP and PUK – relations were excellent with both,” said Mr. Francona.

“I worked more closely with the PUK, but that was a factor of how our team worked. I did intelligence liaison with the PUK and a colleague of mine worked more with the KDP.”

Mr. Francona has been involved in a number of sensitive operations including the escape of the family of an Iraqi nuclear scientist in 1995.

“We received a tasking from CIA headquarters directing us to arrange for the escape of the family of Dr Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who had formerly worked in Saddam’s nuclear weapons program. We executed that operation and brought the family out.”

Though Mr. Francona now has nothing to do with the CIA, his background values his views on the post-Saddam Iraqi politics. Here is an interview that Rudaw’s correspondent Hawar Abdul-Razaq conducted with Mr. Francona. He says President Obama failed to solve any issues in the region and the possible withdrawal of US forces is a mistake.

Q: How do you see the future of Iraq? Isn’t it going to be portioned at the end of the day?

Francona: The future of Iraq remains a question, although I am optimistic that the Iraqis will figure out how to manage the diversity that comprises the population. The primary issue is security – ending the violence, be it between Sunni and Shi’s, or between ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, etc.). That includes hunting down and eliminating all vestiges of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Then the Iraqis can start the healing process to become one country.

I worry about Iran’s closeness to the Shi’a parties – that is one reason I was glad to see my friend Iyad ‘Allawi win the election. Iraq must emerge as a secular state again – a religious-based or dominated government only plays into the hands of the Iranians. Although I would do everything I could to minimize Iranian influence in the country, I am not sure President Obama will.

I hope there is some coalition building that allows Sunni participation in the governance of the country, otherwise, there will be resentment against the Shi’a and inevitably violence.

I do not see Iraq being divided – the location of the natural resources (primarily oil) do not allow an equitable distribution of the wealth, so a division into Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish areas will likely not work. Again, the Sunnis will feel disenfranchised and strike out.

Q: Given the Shiite domination of Iraq, don’t you think that Iran is ultimately going to be the actual winner of the Iraq war?

Francona: I hope not, but given the failure of the Obama Administration to resolve any issues in the region, I fear that Iran may emerge as the key power broker in not only Iraq but the entire Persian Gulf region.

The US does not “have to withdraw” from Iraq, but is choosing to – a mistake in my view. Two reasons. We should never have announced the exact withdrawal date - all that does is tell your opponents how long they need to wait to realize their goals. Also,www.ekurd.netI believe that an American presence in the region is required to offset Iranian ascendancy in the area – Iraq is the perfect place to have that presence.

Q: Former Director of the Turkish Intelligence agency known as MIT, Mahir Kaynak, says that US is in favor of dividing Iraq and would do so. Is this possible?

Francona: I don’t put much stock in what the Turks, especially their intelligence services – and I have worked with most of them – say.

I don’t think this is the American plan, since we have always stated our desire that the territorial integrity of Iraq remain intact. Despite Kurdish wishes, I do not envision an independent Kurdish state. The Kurdish Autonomous Region is as good as it is going to get.