BAGHDAD -- Top U.S. diplomatic and military officials urged Iraq's lawmakers yesterday to speed up political progress, a sign of Washington's concern that security gains could be squandered amid legislative infighting.
The comments were reminiscent of those heard repeatedly last spring and summer as pressure mounted on Iraq's parliament to pass legislation considered crucial to fostering national reconciliation.
Also reminiscent was the political discord in parliament. Now, as before, lawmakers are divided into sectarian blocs, and boycotts and walkouts continue to hamper movement on major bills. None of the legislation that U.S. officials focused on earlier this year has won approval.
What is different now, and what is giving U.S. officials a new sense of urgency, is the reduced violence across the country and, in particular, in the capital of Baghdad. They say higher violence levels will return if parliament does not use the calmer environment to improve essential services nationwide, forge ties with local and provincial leaders, and sort out disputes blocking major bills splitting Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. The pending legislation would manage Iraq's oil wealth and lift rules limiting employment opportunities for former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, who served as ambassador to Iraq in 2004, said six days of touring Iraq had left him encouraged by the improved security.
"Now progress on political reconciliation ... is needed to consolidate the gains made thus far," he said. "If progress is not made on these fronts, we risk falling back to the more violent patterns of the past."
In separate comments, the No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said the lowered violence showed that things "are clearly moving in the right direction." But Odierno, speaking to CNN's Late Edition, echoed Negroponte's comments that the national government should pick up the pace of reconciliation.
"I think now we have security at a level where we have to now look at other things. The increase of services to the people, the increase of political accommodation at the local level, the provincial level," he said.
Both officials said they saw signs of progress on the national level. Negroponte expressed optimism that the oil bill and the so-called de-Baathification law would pass. Odierno noted "some movement with some laws" inside parliament. "But obviously we have not made the progress we want to yet," he said.
Odierno also said the U.S. military had made headway yesterday on one major issue: persuading Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to move more quickly to bring volunteer security workers onto Iraqi government payrolls. The volunteers are commonly known as "concerned local citizens" and are a result of U.S. military efforts to recruit civilians, many of them former insurgents, to work alongside American and Iraqi troops.
Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said al-Maliki had agreed to incorporate volunteer forces in numbers based on estimated needs from the field. He said those not incorporated into security forces would be rehabilitated and trained for civil-service jobs.
Dabbagh said volunteers would be vetted on an individual basis, not in groups. This appears to be an attempt to head off what al-Maliki has expressed concern over: that groups of armed volunteers could become militias and turn their guns on each other or on Iraqi security forces once U.S. troops leave.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.