By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; A06
BAGHDAD -- U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill expressed deep concern Monday about how slowly Iraqi officials have moved to seat a new government, saying they need to "get this show on the road."
U.S. officials see the formation of a new government and a smooth transfer of power as crucial precursors to the scheduled drawdown of all but 50,000 troops by the end of August.
Hill's unusually blunt comments reflect growing U.S. anxiety about a process that has been slowed by a host of factors. They include the close results from the March 7 parliamentary elections, a recently ordered manual recount of the approximately 2.4 million ballots cast in Baghdad, and ongoing efforts to disqualify candidates for alleged sympathies to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
"Obviously, one would like to see them pick up the pace," Hill told journalists at the U.S. Embassy on Monday evening. "While we always knew this was going to be a tough period, we are approaching almost seven weeks" since the vote.
The leaders of the two blocs that garnered the most votes, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sunni-backed secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, contend that there were serious irregularities that affected the elections' outcome. Maliki, whose coalition trailed Allawi's by two seats, demanded the manual recount.
Allawi says rival Shiite politicians, acting with Maliki's blessing, abused the authority of a commission empowered to weed out Baath sympathizers in order to weaken his bloc.
"I would say this is a close election, which has caused great strain, great challenges to all of Iraq's nascent democratic institutions," Hill said. He added that the judicial system, which has had to weigh in on some of the disputes, "has not been immune."
Adding to the uncertainty, Iraqi officials announced Monday that at least one candidate in Allawi's bloc had been found unfit for office because of alleged ties to the Baath Party.
If an appeals panel signs off on that decision, and if other elected candidates in Allawi's Iraqiya slate are disqualified in the coming days, the bloc could lose its two-seat lead. That would further delay the process and could trigger anger among Sunnis.
The Obama administration ordered the military in early 2009 to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August 2010. The assumption was that elections would be held in December or January and that a new government would be in place well before the deadline.
Despite a three-month delay and the recent wrangling, U.S. commanders say they are still on track to meet the drawdown deadline. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said he would determine two months after the vote whether the drawdown timeline remains sensible.
After the December 2005 parliamentary elections, it took nearly six months to form a government. At the time, Iraqi officials did not have to grapple with candidate disqualifications or manual recounts.
Some Iraqi and U.S. officials see dangerous parallels between the current impasse and the one that followed the 2005 vote, when feelings of Sunni disenfranchisement helped fuel the worst period of the insurgency.
"We are facing a dangerous slippery slope," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, a leading figure in the Iraqiya slate. "No one can predict its consequences."
In 2006, Sunni extremists began attacking Shiite militias by using powerful bombs. Similar attacks in recent weeks, including Friday's bombings targeting Shiite worshipers, have raised fears that Shiite militias could once again take up arms in areas where residents feel abandoned by the government.
Unlike in the period after the 2005 elections, the current political disputes have been largely peaceful. Iraqi and U.S. officials say an outbreak of political violence is less likely now because Iraq's security forces are stronger and less politicized than they were in 2006. But many say a lengthy period of government paralysis raises the probability of a new outbreak of violence.
"Right now the violence is not a strategic threat to the state," said Brett McGurk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as a senior Iraq adviser to the Bush and Obama administrations. "If there is a sense that the drivers of violence are political parties, then you start to have the seeds of a breakdown."
Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.