To prevent the breakdown of Iraq's troubled transition and a potential civil war, Iraq's new government appealed to the Bush administration yesterday to take a much more assertive role, particularly on four key political and military issues, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
In talks with Vice President Cheney yesterday and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari requested greater U.S. and coalition help in crafting a new constitution. The deadline is now less than three months away, but deliberations have been slowed as Iraq still works on the composition of a constitutional committee.
With time running out for writing the constitution and then holding elections in December for a permanent government, Zebari warned that the United States has withdrawn too much, leaving the new government struggling to cope and endangering the long-term prospects for success.
"This entire project -- of regime change and building democracy and encouraging reforms and American prestige -- has really reached a critical mass for us and for them," Zebari said in an interview yesterday. "We've come through difficult times and made a great deal of progress, at a great cost and loss. If we are unable to write a constitution with consensus, what is the alternative? This process would be prolonged and people will start to walk away. Walking away means the possibility of chaos, division or even civil war. There are people who are fomenting that [conflict] now."
Iraq's current interim government, which was elected in January but was unable to select a cabinet and to take over until last month, asked Washington to help bring the Sunni minority into the political process. Zebari asked the administration to use its leverage with major Sunni leaders, such as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah, to weigh in with Iraq's Sunni leaders to get them to end a virtual boycott of the political process.
Zebari also asked the United States for additional staff and resources to accelerate the creation of a new Iraqi army and police force, particularly with insurgent attacks increasingly targeting the new Iraqi security forces.
Finally, the Iraqi government asked Washington to speed up the confirmation of its new ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. Iraq has been without a top U.S. envoy since John D. Negroponte returned to Washington in mid-March to become the administration's new director of national intelligence.
Khalilzad, who until recently was ambassador to Afghanistan, is due to appear in Senate confirmation hearings next week, according to the State Department. "This is a critical period and he is not there," Zebari said. The number two diplomatic post in Baghdad, the largest U.S. embassy in the world, has also gone through a transition over the past month.
In general, Zebari said the United States has pulled back too much in Iraq, after what many Iraqis considered heavy-handed leadership during the 14-month U.S. rule of Iraq. "There is something between too much and not enough," Zebari said. Washington, he said, now needs to be "more focused and more engaged" and not say "this is yours, hands off." Failing to meet established deadlines for the democratic transition would be "the end of trying to transform Iraq," he warned.
U.S. officials said the administration is working on getting Khalilzad confirmed, but it is still unclear when he will be dispatched to Baghdad.
After the talks with Rice, a senior U.S. official said the administration is aware of the Iraqi concerns and is working on ways to address the other three issues in light of the time constraints, but he did not provide specifics.
The Bush administration has attempted to orchestrate a phased transfer of authority in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the first phase, the occupation government led by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer lasted for 14 months. It was followed by an appointed Iraqi government that ruled with U.S. assistance from June 2004 through the elections in January and the formation of the interim government last month.
The current, third phase is supposed to last through the writing of a constitution, due in mid-August; a constitutional referendum in October; and the elections for a permanent government in December. There is a provision to extend this phase for six months, but Iraqi and U.S. officials want to stick to the schedule.
Zebari's request comes as U.S. experts on Iraq, including former U.S. officials in Iraq, also express concern that the momentum generated by Iraq's historic January elections is being lost.
"Since the election, Iraq has been in a period of political deadlock and drift, which has not fully been resolved even with the formation quite late in the game of a transitional government led by Ibrahim Jafaari," said Larry Diamond, who worked in the occupation government last year and is the author of a new book, "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq."
"We have been hurt quite badly by the prolonged absence of a U.S. ambassador," he said.
U.S. analysts say the Bush administration now faces a tough balancing act -- helping Iraq with its political transition without appearing to be dictating the outcome, particularly of a new constitution, in ways that would trigger challenges to its legitimacy.
"We're in a dilemma. We want it to appear that the Iraqis are making all the decisions -- and pretty much they are. As long as U.S. interests are not directly at stake, we've allowed Iraqis to run the show and make their own mistakes and be responsible. The problem is when there aren't results, we're blamed," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University.
"If this fails, it's our fault. If it succeeds, it's their success. That's the reality," she said.