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America's waning clout in Iraq

In 2006, the US is expected to cut troops and spending, leaving it with less sway in Iraq.

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Mr. Nadhmi argues that Khalilzad needs to broaden the US base of support by talking to a wider group of politicians and Iraqi society. He calls the current approach "counterproductive. They are creating conditions that will work against them."

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Another lever of US influence, of course, is reconstruction money. But it appears that, too, is likely to shrink in the coming year. The Washington Post cited unnamed US officials in Baghdad last week as saying the Bush Administration will ask for no new reconstruction money from Congress when the current $18.4 billion package runs out sometime in the middle of this year.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan refused to confirm the story on Tuesday. But he also emphasized that "the international community has important responsibilities to meet, as well," which tracks with the comments of US officials in Iraq that they're counting on major commitments from European countries and Japan.

Perceived US reconstruction failures to this point have also reduced US influence and provide incentives for leaders to bow to populist pressures and distance themselves from their recent benefactor.

"An occupying power has a responsibility based on international law ... they should rebuild this country after they destroyed it," says Nabeal M.S. Younis, a senior lecturer of international relations and public policy at the University of Baghdad. He says America's failure to deliver on rebuilding has left its image badly damaged among Iraqis.

US spending has, however, created jobs, probably one of the most effective tools against the insurgency. The carrot of a steady paycheck is powerful in a country with at least 50 percent unemployment.

"There are no opportunities in Iraq. If there was opportunity there would be no mujahideen," says Iraqi soldier Sajid, using the word for holy warrior that many insurgents prefer.

Sajid says he joined the Iraqi Army because it was the only steady job at $400 a month and even that he supplements with driving a taxi on his days off. But insurgents pay civilians up to $100 just to dig a hole, he says, where someone else is paid $100 to plant a bomb in the hole. "For a dollar bill, boom!"

Mr. Mack at the Middle East Institute says the best course for the US would not only be increased spending, but the creation of an international donor body that would allow for real influence to be exercised by other partners.

"If we could do something like western Europe after World War II, where economic support for Iraq was internationalized and we contributed heavily, that would be far more attractive to the Iraqis than anything we have offered so far,'' he says.

And while the most powerful source of US influence in Iraq remains the military, US officials have indicated in recent weeks that boots on the ground, too, will be reduced this year. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, troops are to be reduced from current levels of around 155,000 to about 130,000 before the end of the year.