Khalilzad warns Iraqis of lagging U.S. support

By Alexandra Zavis

Los Angeles Times

March 26, 2007

BAGHDAD — Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned Iraqi leaders today that they risked losing the support of an impatient U.S. population if they don't "step up and take the tough decisions necessary for success."

He also said that U.S. and Iraqi officials had opened talks with representatives of some Sunni Arab insurgent groups in hopes of forging a united front against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Khalilzad, who is President Bush's nominee to represent the U.S. at the United Nations, leaves Iraq this week after 21 months. He will be replaced within days by Ryan Crocker, who most recently served as the American ambassador to Pakistan.

Addressing a farewell news conference, Khalilzad said Iraqi leaders had taken important steps toward overcoming their differences, including approving draft legislation on sharing Iraq's massive oil wealth.

But with pressure mounting in Washington to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, he said Iraqis needed to act quickly on the remaining obstacles to reconciliation.

"I know that we are an impatient people," Khalilzad warned. "I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out."

Khalilzad spent his last months here pressing Iraq's leaders to disband militias, set a date for local elections, revise the laws that removed ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the civil service, and change the constitution to make it acceptable to all ethnic and religious groups.

Khalilzad declined to provide details of his contacts with Iraqi insurgent groups, citing Al Qaeda's attempts to derail the process.

The New York Times reported today that Khalilzad held talks last year with men believed to represent major factions, including the Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, both made up largely of former members of Hussein's army and political party.

Khalilzad confirmed at the news conference that U.S. Embassy and military personnel, as well as Iraqi officials, had met with groups opposed to the current government, and said these talks continued.

He said some Sunni Arab tribes and insurgent groups shared common ground with the Shiite-led government in their opposition to Al Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for many of the most sensational attacks against Sunnis and Shiite Muslims alike.

He denied the strategy was at odds with the U.S. government's policy of not negotiating with terrorists, saying the goal was to "separate more and more groups away from Al Qaeda" and encourage their cooperation against terror.

But he ruled out talks with Al Qaeda.

"There cannot be reconciliation with Al Qaeda. They have to be brought to justice," he said. "But there are groups that resisted the democratic change, the change in Iraq. It is our goal to get those groups to be reconciled to embrace the new Iraq and that will be a victory."

Despite many challenges, Khalilzad said he believed Iraq was on the right track.

He said violence in Baghdad had dropped nearly a quarter since the start of a security crackdown, now in its sixth week. Iraqi security forces were shouldering a growing share of the burden, he said. And Iraqi civilians were providing a steady stream of tips.

The Shiite-led government was also behaving in an evenhanded way toward lawbreakers on all sides, he said. U.S. and Iraqi military leaders last week reported that more than 700 Shiite militiamen have been arrested since the security crackdown began Feb. 13.

Khalilzad's cautiously optimistic assessment came as violence raged for a third day in a belt of towns south of the capital that have seen frequent clashes between Sunni Arab and Shiite militants.

Gunmen armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades traded fire with Iraqi security forces in Iskandariya, the Iraqi army said. At least three people, including one civilian, were killed and five injured in the clashes. A Sunni mosque was damaged in the crossfire, they said.

At least two mortar rounds landed near the Iskandariya bank during the fighting, killing two more civilians and injuring three, police said.

In Haswa, scene of repeated violence in the past two days, a body rigged with explosives was pushed out of a car and detonated near an Iraqi checkpoint, Iraqi army officials said. The blast injured six soldiers, they said.

Another bomb planted outside a Shiite mosque in Mahaweel damaged a fence but caused no injuries, police said.

In Baghdad, a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in a southern section of the city killed one officer and injured three, police said.

North of the capital, an insurgent was killed and another injured in the process of planting a bomb in front of the home of a police officer in Hawija, police said.

A policeman was injured when a roadside bomb targeted his patrol in downtown Kirkuk and an unspecified number of bodies were recovered from an area just west of the city, police said. The victims had been shot execution-style and showed signs of torture, they said.

Times special correspondents in Baghdad and Hillah contributed to this report.