By STEVEN R. HURST
The Associated Press
Saturday, March 24, 2007; 3:11 PM
BAGHDAD -- On his first day as U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad said al-Qaida in Iraq and Sunni insurgents wanted to start a civil war. He leaves his post after 21 months as U.S. and Iraqi forces fight to keep that fear from becoming reality in Baghdad.
The Afghan-born Khalilzad _ a Sunni and therefore suspect among many of the Shiites who dominate Iraq's post-Saddam power structure _ shouldered his mission here on June 21, 2005, saying he was "horrified by the daily suffering of the Iraqi people. The terrorists attack ordinary people, teachers, doctors, newly trained police and others who are assisting the people of Iraq."
On a farewell swing late last week _ he chose Iraq's largely peaceful and increasingly prosperous Kurdish region _ Khalilzad said he regretted leaving an Iraq mired in violence.
"I have been very saddened and concerned that the level of violence has been as high, sectarian violence in particular has been a grave threat," said the 56-year-old envoy, who has been nominated by President Bush as the next U.S. envoy to the United Nations.
Khalilzad's heritage, his early days in the cauldron of Afghanistan, sharpened his skills as a Middle East dealmaker. But even he found the complexities of post-Saddam Iraq an occasionally impenetrable maze and deeply hostile to policies he was charged with implementing.
When Khalilzad arrived in Baghdad from his native Afghanistan, where he had been the top U.S. diplomat, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq stood at 1,324. The figure has since risen to at least 3,234.
Iraqi deaths in the same period are a matter of debate, but since al-Qaida bombed one of the most important Shiite shrines in Iraq 13 months ago, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and whole neighborhoods have undergone sectarian cleansing. The bombing caused the once-relatively quiescent Shiite community to rise up in a campaign of revenge.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq said 34,452 Iraqis died last year alone.
In the meantime, the U.S. military, with the promise from Bush of about 30,000 more American troops by June, is engaged with Iraqi security forces in a third attempt in less than a year to extinguish the sectarian war in Baghdad and the center of the country.
U.S. military and sectarian deaths have fallen since the crackdown began Feb. 14, though the number of Iraqis killed in the capital is gradually creeping upward again.
Khalilzad's diplomacy was a moving force in that decline, in the short term, by persuading Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Mailiki to pressure one of his key political backers into pulling Shiite militia fighters, the Mahdi Army, off the streets of the capital.
Sunni and al-Qaida fighters have pulled off several spectacular bombings. The numbers are down slightly from pre-crackdown days, but the insurgents are still pulling off high-profile attacks.
On Thursday, a Katyusha rocket slammed into the Green Zone about 50 yards from where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was holding a press conference with al-Maliki. There were no serious casualties but videotape of Ban, ducking and looking frightened by the explosion, dominated television screens.
A day later, an insurgent suicide bomber got within feet of one of Iraq's two deputy prime ministers, Salam al-Zubaie, wounding the top Sunni official seriously and killing nine others during Friday prayers at the private mosque attached to his home.
While Khalilzad was able to persuade al-Maliki to give American forces a free hand in the security operation and to keep the Mahdi Army largely out of sight, the U.S. envoy has had a difficult relationship with the Iraqi leader.
At one point last year, al-Maliki declared that while he was a friend of the United States, "I am not America's man in Iraq."
Al-Maliki also has promised his government will ensure passage of an oil law, a measure with overriding importance for the Bush administration; take action to ensure national reconciliation; set a date for local elections, and make progress on constitutional amendments.
So far all those measures have languished.
Al-Maliki aides have said the prime minister has been notified by "people in the U.S. Embassy" that the United States would withdraw backing for his government if the benchmarks are not met by June 30.
The Bush administration says there has been no threat, but if a tough message was delivered, it most certainly came from Khalilzad.
Khalilzad's mission was a true high-wire act, certainly one of the most challenging for a U.S. diplomat in recent history. And reflecting those difficulties, Iraqis gave him mixed marks.
For example, Ali al-Alaq, a senior lawmaker from al-Maliki's Dawa Party, said Khalilzad was biased in favor of fellow Sunnis: "We hope the new ambassador will be more evenhanded with all Iraq's sects."
But Barham Salah, one of two deputy prime ministers and a Kurd, whose people have benefited greatly from the American presence, saw it otherwise: "At times, he seemed to care for the success of the new Iraq more than some Iraqi leaders did and he leaves with the admiration of Iraqis, even those he disagreed with."
Hurst is AP bureau chief in Iraq and has reported on the war since 2003.