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Iraq road map: the new US ambassador explains hurdles

Iraq's new US ambassador has been welcomed by Iraqi political leaders, who criticized his predecessor for not being actively engaged in the political process.

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“I know there’s a preference for a government in Washington without the Sadrists but it’s quite difficult how that should come into existence,” says Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

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To break the deadlock over forming a coalition government almost six months after Iraqis went to the polls, the US has backed a proposal that would leave Nouri al-Maliki in place as prime minister but create a new security council led by his main challenger Ayad Allawi. Allawi, a secular Shiite, was interim prime minister in the transitional government organized by US occupation authorities.

Any such council, intended to oversee strategic security and economic decisions, is considered by many Iraqi officials to be unconstitutional and would have to be created by an act of parliament. No political blocs have publicly come out in support of the plan.

Jeffrey’s arrival has been welcomed by Iraqi political leaders, who criticized his predecessor, Ambassador Chris Hill, for not being actively engaged in the political process – part of the US mandate under the strategic framework agreement to help foster democracy here.

“He has a lot of respect – he has dealt with all the key players, he knows them one by one,” said Mr Zebari. “He can play a more active role … to make some progress in government formation.”

Jeffrey has already met with leaders from a number of Iraqi factions. He has not, however, met with Sadr leaders, who refuse to meet American officials and tried to block the vote on the status of forces agreement during the last parliament. The Sadrist’s Mehdi Army fought US forces in Najaf, Karbala and other cities in 2004 before Moqtada Sadr declared a ceasefire and turned the organization into what has become a potent political movement.

With the withdrawal of American forces, the US plans to expand its civilian presence here to two consulates in Basra and Irbil and diplomatic missions in Mosul and Kirkuk – two flashpoints of Kurdish-Arab tension.

To do that requires a new Iraqi government.

“We have a huge agenda to get in place the various aspects of the strategic framework agreement and those require negotiating with the government – signing agreements, moving forward and even getting basic things like agreement to build on land in sites across the country,” Jeffrey said.

The US and a new Iraqi government have been widely expected to begin negotiating a new security agreement which would provide troops here past 2011 to help protect Iraq’s land borders and air space – a development that now appears far from assured.

Visser, the editor of the political site says he does not believe that any new Iraqi government would agree to negotiate a new status of forces agreement.

“I think any government trying to renew it would be in big trouble,” he says. “I think a big problem of US policy is they totally underestimate the historical legacies involved in this. Iraqis will not sign up to an arrangement with long-term bases, or long-term advisers, or long-term anything.”