BAGHDAD, Dec. 1 -- The Bush administration, concerned that recent
security gains in Iraq may be undermined by continuing political
gridlock, is pushing the Iraqi government to complete long-delayed
reform legislation within six months.
"Some will tell you, 'No problem,' " Deputy Secretary of State John D.
Negroponte said Saturday, referring to his conversations with senior
Iraqi government officials during an extended visit over the past
week. "Nobody's told me these things are impossible."
Negroponte said he reminded Iraqi officials that passage of key laws
leading toward political reconciliation are "something that people are
watching with great interest back in Washington."
The U.S. military has expressed pointed concern that the Iraqi
government is not taking advantage of the "window of opportunity" that
this year's increased troop presence was designed to provide. Senior
officers have said it will be critical in the next few months for the
Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move
decisively toward political reconciliation with minority Sunnis, who
have joined U.S. forces in the fight against the insurgent group
al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Negroponte said the Iraqis understand that time is running out for
passage of laws to equitably distribute oil revenue and codify the
separation of central government and provincial powers, among others
mandated last spring by the U.S. Congress. "I don't doubt that six
months from now, we'll look back and they shall have been passed," he
Negroponte spoke in an interview at the U.S. ambassador's Green Zone
residence after a week-long tour of nine Iraqi cities and
conversations with top provincial and central government leaders. The
trip, among the longest and most extensive by a senior U.S. official
since the 2003 invasion, remained secret for security reasons until
his return to Baghdad late this week.
Negroponte's stops, in addition to the capital, included Basra, Hilla
and Kut to the south; Baqubah, in still-violent Diyala province
northeast of Baghdad; Kirkuk and Salahuddin in the north; and Ramadi
and Fallujah in the west.
Negroponte had traveled to some of those cities while he served for
nine months as ambassador here in 2004-05. But others, such as Ramadi
-- until recently, a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq -- were "forbidden
territory," he said.
Extensive violence during the first half of this year, followed by a
sharp decrease in attacks on the military and Iraqi civilians over the
past several months, have dominated discussions in Washington and on
the presidential campaign trail. Congressional questioning of Gen.
David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S.
Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker during a progress report in September
focused on whether then-nascent security progress would continue.
Now, with an increasingly optimistic security outlook, Democrats have
begun to reposition themselves with a focus on lagging political
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said after visiting here last week that he
thought President Bush's troop "surge" strategy was working. When
Republicans seized on the comment as an acknowledgment of White House
success, Murtha issued a statement saying that while the "surge has
created a window of opportunity, unfortunately the sacrifice of our
troops has not been met by the Iraqi government and they have failed
to capitalize on the political and diplomatic steps that the surge was
designed to provide."
In a separate interview here, the embassy's chief economic affairs
officer, Charles P. Ries, said Iraq's "economy has responded to the
openings [provided by] the surge maybe better than the political"
situation. Central government allocations to the provinces, including
Sunni-dominated Anbar, have sharply increased, and the money has
arrived on time. "The provinces are spending at twice the rate of
2006," Ries said.
Since September, oil exports have risen by 250,000 to 300,000 barrels
a day, and rising oil prices "have been very kind to this country," he
said. Electrical production, while still problematic and far below
demand, is increasing.
But public services remain spotty, the banking system is moribund, and
foreign and domestic investment are minuscule. Investment,
particularly in the oil industry, is crucial for sustained economic
growth, Ries said. But it remains hostage to a package of hydrocarbon
laws that has been locked in debate among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish
political blocs for nearly a year.
Long-stalled provincial elections await passage of a similarly debated
law delineating the powers and responsibilities of the central
government and the provinces. Sunnis, who largely boycotted elections
in late 2005, are seeking increased political power. The U.S. military
is concerned that recent success in reducing Sunni support of
insurgent groups will be lost if those demands are not satisfied.
"Just about everywhere I went," Negroponte said, "there's a sense that
there ought to be provincial elections as soon as possible. Even among
high-ranking Shiite government officials that I spoke to. . . . Our
difficulty is that we're impatient. We say, 'Why can't they do this
right away?' "
Negroponte said that he has "no quarrel" with the military's anxiety
but that he is coming away from his visit confident that the Iraqis
"realize that now steps have to be taken to consolidate this."
"The peace is fragile," he said, "and the reduction in violence has
been too short-lived to be confident, to be certain, that this quiet
situation will continue for an indefinite period of time. So this is
the time to move."