U.S. ambassador optimistic about Iraq

Negroponte emphasizes America's supporting role

July 18, 2004|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - On an unsettling day of attacks targeting the new political order in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte expressed optimism yesterday that the country's tenuous security situation will improve.

"I'm quite hopeful," he said in his first public remarks to foreign reporters since arriving late last month. But Negroponte acknowledged that the task is a difficult one. "We do have a plan to build up the Iraqi security forces. Is success absolutely assured? I'm not going to make that prediction."

Negroponte arrived for an informal lunch with the reporters in a heavily armed motorcade that took a circuitous route to minimize the risk of attack. As he sat down, he shook his head and said, "I have to do something about security."

In his comments, Negroponte struck two often-repeated themes: The future of the country is in Iraqi hands, and the key to stability will be national elections, even if the process of holding them involves violence.

Both points appeared calculated to reassure Iraqis that the United States is playing a completely different role than it did before the transfer of sovereignty June 28 and that it will not interfere in Iraqis' exercise of their political will.

The United States' purpose is to act "in support of the Iraqi government," Negroponte said. "We are no longer the ultimate political authority."

Negroponte listed three areas in which the United States would be active: training the new Iraqi security forces; fostering the steps that would lead to elections early next year; and allocating the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds approved last year by Congress.

Negroponte, a veteran diplomat who has served in volatile places around the world, including Vietnam, Honduras and the Philippines, refused to be pinned down on such questions as when U.S. troops would leave Iraq and whether the United States would support religious radicals becoming part of the government.

"It's got to be an Iraqi decision," he said in answer to the question about radicals.

On one point, Negroponte was clear: The United States would oppose any effort by the Iraqi interim government to grant amnesty to insurgents who participated in attacks on Americans. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said that the government is working on a broad amnesty proposal aimed at those who participated in the insurgency.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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