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.

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."

The law easing restrictions on former Baathists will have its greatest impact on Sunni Arabs who made up Iraq's power elite under Saddam Hussein. More ex-Baathists who had government posts before the war are expected to reclaim those jobs, while others previously barred from benefits will now receive government pensions.

Yet even as Iraqi politicians debate the new law's real impact – with some predicting it will actually lead to a purge of some Sunnis from Iraq's new security forces – some signs are surfacing that action could be imminent on other measures.

On the heels of passage of the de-Baathification measure, several Shiite, Sunni, and secular political groups announced formation of a common front to press for action on oil revenue-sharing legislation and on the prickly issue of control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The new political alliance may be a sign that determination is growing among nationalist forces to blunt the regionalist tendencies of some Kurdish and Shiite blocs.

But others predict the new alliance could serve to boost Mr. Maliki by giving him a bargaining chip with those dragging out passage of national-reconciliation measures. If the alliance – which includes the parties of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – sticks together, it could potentially include the votes of about half the Parliament.

Even before Rice's trip, Bush had hailed passage of the de-Baathification law as "an important step toward reconciliation." At the White House, officials hope more of the "benchmarks" for Iraqi political action will be approved by March, when Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to deliver a progress report on Iraq to Congress.

Even as they note progress in Iraq as a result of the surge, some experts say long-term prospects for national reconciliation remain cloudy. One reason is that the surge succeeded in part by cooperating with and arming Sunni groups formerly opposed to the US, resulting in Sunni militias that may now feel less inclined to compromise with the dominant Shiite forces, they say.

"We have scattered the forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq, no question," says Wayne White, who headed the State Department's Iraq analysis until 2005 and is now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "But we've made civil war far more likely down the road by making Sunni Arabs far more able to fight it."

Maliki is unhappy with how the US has empowered Sunni groups – ostensibly to fight Islamic extremists but potentially to stand up to Shiite-dominated security forces. The US, says Mr. White, needs to use the new reality on the ground to "scare" all of Iraq's political forces into making the hard compromises that can stave off a return to violence in the future.

White House claims that reconciliation is taking place in the grass roots even if progress stalls at the national level, he adds, won't be enough. "The Sunni Arabs will never believe you until it is enacted into national legislation," he says. "Until then, they are going to believe that, as the US loses more of its influence, everything gained informally will be lost."

The Heritage Foundation's Mr. Phillips says it would be misleading to claim that no progress has been made in the past year just because US-sought benchmarks aren't met. For example, he says, some revenues from Iraq's oil production have been distributed to regions despite no national legislation.

But he agrees that the US should pressure the Iraqis to pass the oil legislation for at least two reasons. One, he says, is that "brokering a durable power-sharing deal" would be a signal to Iraq's Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis "that could take the steam out of a big part of the insurgency."

The other reason, he says, has to do with US politics. The Iraqis need to act now, he says, because they may not be able to count on the same level of support from the next US president.

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