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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Bush Nominee for Top Envoy Unveils Plan

In Senate testimony, Zalmay Khalilzad offers a seven-point program for progress in Iraq. Experts say chaos there puts its success in doubt.

June 08, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's nominee to be ambassador to Iraq offered a seven-point plan Tuesday to tackle the challenge of stabilizing the troubled country, but experts questioned whether chaotic conditions there would allow him to set it in motion.

Testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his confirmation, Zalmay Khalilzad pledged to undertake steps that would include working with Iraqis to help them defeat the insurgency, rebuilding key institutions and forging a unified political vision for the future.

"I intend to make significant progress in realizing Iraqi aspirations for a secure and prosperous life," Khalilzad told the committee, which is expected to vote quickly to recommend his confirmation by the full Senate.

Unlike Bush's controversial nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, Khalilzad is widely respected across party lines in the committee and generally viewed as a success in his last job: U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Development experts credit Khalilzad, whose tenure in Afghanistan lasted 18 months, with meeting many of the same kind of post-invasion nation-building challenges he would face in Iraq. His stay in Kabul, the Afghan capital, coincided with the establishment of an increasingly effective domestic security force, the country's first open elections and an ambitious reconstruction program.

However, Iraq specialists think that a number of factors, including a deteriorating security environment, would make his job far tougher in Baghdad than it was in Kabul.

"He'll have much less space to operate in Iraq -- literally," predicted Frederick D. Barton, who, as director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, tracks events in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There are constraints in getting around in Afghanistan, but he'll find it much more volatile, much edgier, in Iraq."

Barton noted that part of Khalilzad's ability to influence events in Afghanistan was due to the welcoming environment in which he worked, both personally as an Afghan-born American and institutionally as America's representative in a country that had broadly accepted the U.S. presence. Local political attitudes were in an earlier stage of development and thus easier to influence than in Iraq.

"None of this is there in Iraq," Barton said. "It's just a different world."

Others wondered how Khalilzad would implement a pledge to explain U.S. goals directly to the Iraqi people at a time when safety concerns make any diplomatic contact outside the heavily protected Green Zone difficult.

The pledge to address Iraqis directly was the fourth part of Khalilzad's seven-point plan. The remaining three consisted of bringing greater stability to the region, accelerating reconstruction and conducting successful elections.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, praised the Bush administration's choice of Khalilzad, at one point calling him "first-rate." But Biden expressed skepticism that Khalilzad could fulfill the U.S. policy agenda in the Middle East country.

Noting the chaotic security conditions in Iraq, Biden said it would be "close to a miracle" if the new government met its current deadline of Aug. 15 for completing a draft constitution.

"If you're able to go in and accommodate this timetable in success, I'm going to nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize," Biden told Khalilzad. The senator recently returned from his fifth official trip to Iraq.

Biden criticized the administration for failing to take up a European offer to help train mid-level Iraqi military officers, a group whose absence is considered a crucial weakness in the Baghdad government's fighting force. Biden said that Atlantic alliance nations could assist in such training and that French President Jacques Chirac had told him he had received no response to an offer to train 1,500 such officers.

"I am perplexed as to the resistance of the civilians within the Defense Department -- and I guess, other places -- to engage in this kind of concerted effort to train an officer corps," Biden said.

Khalilzad did not immediately respond to his criticism.

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