Iraqis urged to act decisively

March 27, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned Iraqi leaders yesterday that they risk losing the support of impatient Americans if they don't "step up and take the tough decisions necessary for success."

He also said that U.S. and Iraqi officials had opened talks with representatives of Sunni Arab insurgent groups in hopes of forging a united front against al-Qaida in Iraq.

Khalilzad, President Bush's nominee to represent the United States at the United Nations, left Iraq this week after 21 months. He will be replaced within days by Ryan Crocker, most recently the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

Addressing a farewell news conference, Khalilzad said Iraqi leaders have taken important steps toward overcoming their differences, including approving draft legislation on sharing Iraq's oil wealth.

But with pressure growing in Washington to set a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, he said Iraqis must act quickly on the remaining obstacles to reconciliation.

"I know that we are an impatient people," Khalilzad said. "I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out."

Khalilzad has spent his last months in Iraq pressing the country's leaders to disband militias, set a date for local elections, revise the laws that removed ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the civil service and change the constitution to make it acceptable to all ethnic and religious groups.

Khalilzad declined to provide details of his contacts with Iraqi insurgent groups, noting al-Qaida's attempts to derail the process.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Khalilzad held talks last year with men thought to represent major factions, including the Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, both made up largely of former members of Hussein's army and political party.

Khalilzad confirmed that U.S. Embassy and military personnel, and Iraqi officials have met with groups opposed to the current government. Those talks continue, he said.

He said some Sunni Arab tribes and insurgent groups share common ground with the Shiite-led government in their opposition to al-Qaida, which has claimed responsibility for many of the most sensational attacks against Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

He denied that talking to such groups is at odds with U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists, saying the goal is to "separate more and more groups away from al-Qaida" and encourage their cooperation against terror. He ruled out talks with al-Qaida.

Despite many challenges, Khalilzad said, Iraq is on the right track. He said violence in Baghdad has dropped nearly a quarter since the start of a security crackdown that is in its sixth week. Iraqi security forces are shouldering a growing share of the burden, he said, and Iraqi civilians are providing a steady stream of tips.

The Shiite-led government is being evenhanded toward lawbreakers, he said. U.S. and Iraqi military leaders reported last week that more than 700 Shiite militiamen have been arrested since the security crackdown began Feb. 13.

Meanwhile yesterday, violence raged for a third day in towns south of Baghdad where clashes between Sunni and Shiite militants have been frequent.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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