With Rice in Baghdad, U.S. pushes Iraq to clear more 'benchmarks'
The Secretary of State paid a surprise visit Tuesday amid signs that political reconciliation is gaining some traction in Iraq.
In a surprise visit to Baghdad Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Iraq's moves toward national reconciliation as "quite remarkable" and said political progress there is proof that last year's "surge" of 30,000 additional US troops has been a success.Skip to next paragraph
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Seeking to build on Saturday's passage by the Iraqi Parliament of a key measure easing sanctions against former Baathists, Secretary Rice said Iraq must move on to other legislation "for healing the wounds of the past."
Rice's words reflect rising hopes in the Bush administration that passage of the first in a set of long-stalled measures – legislation known in the US as "benchmarks" for political progress – will act as a break in a logjam that has held up Iraqi national reconciliation.
At a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Rice acknowledged that political progress "has not always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like," but she added it is now time to "focus on what needs to be done, but also on how much has been done."
With violence down, insurgent groups quieted, and many of the forces affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq routed, the United States sees the "surge" of troops succeeding militarily – and now Rice is assuring Americans as well as Iraqis that it is working politically, too.
In announcing the surge a year ago, President Bush said its aim was to provide the conditions for Iraq's warring power blocs to find common ground on important political issues. In dispatching Rice to Baghdad from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was conducting talks with King Abdullah, Mr. Bush said Rice would "help push the momentum by her very presence" and squelched speculation that he would stop in Baghdad on his Middle East trip.
Yet even experts who see the surge as having a positive political impact in Iraq caution that it's now up to the Iraqis to take advantage of their country's more peaceful conditions.
What the US has done is provide an "opportunity" for Iraqis – led by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – to compromise on unsettled power-sharing issues, including oil-revenue distribution, provincial elections and powers, and constitutional reform, some experts say. But with US troop levels beginning to shrink and with the US commitment to Iraq likely to weaken no matter who is elected president in November, it's now crunch time for Iraq's leaders.
"The US needs the Iraqis to come up with their own surge of political action, and pretty quickly here, if the effort is to be a long-term success," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The US military surge did its job in improving conditions on the ground, but now the Maliki government must take the opportunity to transform those gains by reaching out to moderate Sunnis and bringing them into a political-power-sharing arrangement.
"If they miss this opportunity," he adds, "Iraq could slip back."