U.S. Envoy Says Iraqi Premier Has Short Time to Quell Violence

By Amit R. Paley and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 30, 2006

BAGHDAD, Sept. 29 -- The U.S. ambassador to Iraq warned on Friday that time is running out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to contain the burgeoning sectarian bloodshed that threatens to plunge the country into civil war.

"He has a window of a couple months," said the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. "If the perception is that this unity government is not able to deal with this issue, then a big opportunity would have been lost and it would take a long time to address this issue."

His remarks, which came during a surge in reprisal killings across Baghdad, reinforced comments by several senior U.S. military officials this week that Maliki's government must move urgently to tackle the militias and death squads wreaking havoc across the country.

Unlike the military commanders, however, Khalilzad said he and President Bush still have full confidence in Maliki and were "cautiously optimistic" that his government has the political will to rein in the bloodletting.

In a wide-ranging 45-minute interview at the ambassador's residence, Khalilzad also acknowledged that the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 was partly responsible for the violence engulfing Iraq, creating a "moral responsibility" for the United States to remain in the country to help solve the Sunni-Shiite bloodletting.

"They need our help," he said. "These circumstances have, in part, to do with the fact that we came in here."

After months of accusing Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq, Khalilzad on Friday also accused Syria of destabilizing the country. He said the Syrian government had harbored insurgents and allowed them to pour across the border into Iraq, adding that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani recently raised concerns with Syrian officials. "It's an issue for both the Iraqis and us to deal with," Khalilzad said.

The ambassador said sectarian violence had replaced the insurgency as the single biggest threat facing Iraq and called on the government to disarm unauthorized militias. He cited two armed groups: the Mahdi Army, controlled by anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Organization, run by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shiite party.

"They need to be brought under control," Khalilzad said. "They both need to be brought down."

Maliki's focus on political rather than military solutions to the militia problem has shown some signs of success, Khalilzad said, pointing to a recent statement by Sadr that "he wants only peaceful resistance and he doesn't want violence against the coalition."

"That's progress compared to where he was. . . . Now we want to see, on the ground, that actions are consistent with that," Khalilzad said.

Senior U.S. military commanders have recently raised serious concerns that Maliki's government is not moving quickly enough to control militias. That goal is complicated by the fact that the militias are controlled by major political parties that make up the fragile unity government.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company