U.S. Moves to Reassert Itself in Iraq Affairs

As insurgent attacks grow, American officials are returning to a more active role to improve services and foster an inclusive government.

By Paul Richter and Ashraf Khalil

Los Angeles Times

May 20, 2005

WASHINGTON — Facing an intensifying insurgency and a frail government in Baghdad, the Bush administration has reluctantly changed course to deepen its involvement in the process of running Iraq.

U.S. officials are taking a more central and visible role in mediating among political factions, pushing for the government to be more inclusive and helping resuscitate public services. At the same time, Washington is maintaining pressure on Iraqi officials to upgrade the nation's fledgling security forces.

The change comes at a time when confidence in the leaders elected in January has been falling and U.S. officials have grown more pessimistic about how soon Iraqi security forces will be able to take charge of the counterinsurgency effort.

Both before and after the election, the Bush administration tried to scale back its role and shift decisions to the Iraqi leadership. U.S. officials had feared that a continued high profile might prove counterproductive, giving the impression that Iraqi government leaders were not acting independently.

But in recent weeks, as formation of the new government inched along and the insurgency escalated, some Iraqi officials began telling the Americans that they needed more support and mediation to overcome differences among factions, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

"These are Iraqi issues. But that doesn't mean we can't make use of American experience and friendly advice," said Karim Khutar Almusawi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite Muslim political party.

The new American approach came clearly into focus this week. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, visiting Iraq on Thursday, called for "an inclusive process" in governing the country and urged action on a new constitution. His trip came days after a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice's visit, which carried a signal of American support for the fledgling government, was "very welcome," Almusawi said.

U.S. officials acknowledged that they were pressing hard for Iraq to move ahead. Although Iraqis are making the choices, the officials said, Washington has "red lines" that its partners must not cross. For instance, the U.S. insists that the Iraqi government be democratic and that the country be pluralistic, yet united, one official said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of rules that forbid many U.S. officials from talking publicly unless they restrict themselves to the language of prepared policy statements.

One official said that although the Iraqis were "the ultimate determinants of their own destiny … we have 140,000 troops here, and they are getting shot at."

"We're also spending a lot of money. We don't dictate action plans," the official said. "But we constantly remind them that we're working toward the same goal, and we have our 'red lines.' "

Another U.S. official said the administration had been pressuring the recently elected Iraqi leaders to move faster to organize their government because of American worries that their slow start and fractious behavior since the election had heartened insurgents and spurred an increase in violence.

He insisted, however, that although American officials would push the Iraqis, they didn't want to make decisions for them. That, he said, would undermine the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and cause the United States to become even further entangled in the problems of a country that it one day wants to leave.

"There are many people in Iraq who want us to take ownership of some of these problems," he said. "We can't do it."

During their visits to Iraq, Zoellick and Rice made it clear that Washington's top priority was to get the Iraqi government to include greater numbers of Sunni Muslim Arabs, the minority group that has been most alienated and is considered to be behind much of the insurgency.

The U.S. diplomats urged Shiite Muslim and Kurdish leaders to draw more Sunni Arabs into the government, give them a larger role in the committee drafting a constitution and write the document in a way that will convince Sunnis that they have a place in the new Iraq. The committee organized last week to write the constitution includes only two Sunni Arabs among its 55 members.

Zoellick told reporters Thursday that although many Sunni Arabs boycotted the election in January, they now "feel they have missed the boat and want to get engaged in the process."

During Rice's visit, she sought to mediate a problem among Kurdish Iraqis that has drawn little international notice, but which some Iraqis believe could become a major political stumbling block.

The top U.S. diplomat met in the northern city of Irbil with Massoud Barzani, president of Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who has been increasingly at odds with the KDP's long-standing rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

The two parties forged an alliance during the election, but Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talabani, now the president of Iraq, have disagreed over which party will have most influence in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The standoff has hampered the government's progress in Kurdistan and prevented the newly elected regional parliament from holding its first meeting.

In private talks, Rice urged Barzani to come to an understanding with the PUK and to become more engaged in the work of the government in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

Her public remarks about the meeting were more general, citing the "very important role Mr. Barzani can play" in forging the new constitution.

Rice also made it clear that the United States wanted to put more effort into helping the new government improve lagging public services, including providing more electricity and gasoline. Iraq still has long lines at gas stations, and only two-thirds of its electricity needs are met. The continuing shortages are believed to be key reasons that public confidence has been slipping.

Signs emerged during the week that the U.S. diplomats' visits may be helping matters.

Talabani and Barzani plan to meet this week to discuss their differences, according to Iraqi political officials and reports in the Kurdish press.

In Baghdad this week, Sunni and Shiite leaders have been discussing ways to involve more Sunnis in the constitution drafting process as advisors, to provide a wider range of opinions and more credibility. This weekend, about 1,000 Sunni elders from a variety of backgrounds are scheduled to meet in the capital to consider candidates for advisory positions.

U.S. officials are also hoping that international organizations can help, analysts said. This week, a United Nations team headed by South African lawyer Nicholas "Fink" Haysom, a onetime aide to former President Nelson Mandela, was formally asked to help craft the Iraqi constitution.

The Americans "are hoping this will give the process some credibility, inside Iraq and maybe in the eyes of Sunnis outside Iraq too," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a longtime Iraq analyst.

James Dobbins, who has been a top-level U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and other beleaguered regions, said it was essential for outside powers to become engaged in helping shattered and divided countries find a path to reconciliation.

The recent experiences in war-torn Afghanistan and the Balkans show that "you need international process to get this done," said Dobbins, who is now head of Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center.


Richter reported from Washington and Khalil from Baghdad. Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Washington also contributed to this report.