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Kerry Presses for Iraq Deadline

Senator says U.S. troops should withdraw unless Baghdad can form a government by May 15.

April 10, 2006|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Amid the ongoing failure of officials in Iraq to form a government, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) continued to push Sunday for the withdrawal of American forces from that country as soon as next month.

The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said that President Bush should begin pulling out troops if the Iraqis fail by May 15 to agree on a new prime minister and Cabinet, decisions that have been stalled in sectarian bickering since parliamentary elections in December.

Kerry also urged Bush to increase diplomatic pressure, calling for a summit of leaders of neighboring nations and countries in the U.S.-led coalition to force Iraqi officials to form a national government.

"It's unconscionable that any young American is dying because Iraqis, five months after an election, are dithering and squabbling and cannot find the ability to compromise and come together in a democracy," Kerry said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Our kids didn't die for that."

Kerry's remarks, which come as he ponders another run for the White House in 2008, are the latest effort by Democrats to counter Republican accusations that they have no coherent plan for ending the conflict in Iraq. On March 29, Democratic leaders announced a "Real Security" platform, which includes increased military and reconstruction funding.

A week later, Kerry called for the May withdrawal deadline in a New York Times opinion article. But he has received little support, so far, with only a handful of his colleagues in Congress signing on.

Bush administration officials Sunday rejected Kerry's proposal as shortsighted and impractical. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said patience was needed.

The Iraqis are "having some difficulties. We are pressing them, but eventually they will get it right, and it's very important that we stay with them," Khalilzad said on CNN's "Late Edition." "And I don't believe giving them a deadline for withdrawal of troops unless they form a government by May 15 is the right approach."

Kerry was also attacked by the Republican National Committee, which issued a statement Sunday accusing him of exhibiting "his trademark pessimism."

"From his calls for retreat and defeat in Iraq to censuring the president, the senator is more consumed with his own political future than national security," said Tracey Schmitt, the RNC's press secretary. "Despite the Democrats' consummate defeatism, President Bush remains committed to winning the war on terror and protecting Americans."

Khalilzad, meanwhile, downplayed a report by U.S. Embassy and military officials that found that six of Iraq's 18 provinces had "serious" or "critical" stability problems. The report, first disclosed in Sunday's New York Times, shows the status of governance, security and economics in each of Iraq's provinces.

Sunni Arab-dominated Al Anbar province west of Baghdad is rated as having the most serious problems; the Kurdish region in the north and large portions of the Shiite Muslim heartland in south-central Iraq get the best marks. Baghdad, home to about a fifth of Iraq's 26 million people, was designated as having a "serious" problem with security because of ongoing assassinations and crime, among other issues.

The report also notes a growing concern about Iranian influence in several provincial councils, which the U.S. has promoted to foster decentralized government. In Karbala, for instance, the report notes that the local "government is functioning and improving. However, it appears to be increasing [its] association with the Iranian government."

Khalilzad said the report was not contrary to assessments offered by Bush administration officials, who contend that the majority of Iraq's provinces are stable, with problems confined to a few areas such as Al Anbar and Baghdad.

He said the report was prepared to offer a realistic assessment of what U.S. officials could expect as they embarked upon a new plan to focus rebuilding efforts at the local level.

"We want Iraq to succeed, to stand on its own feet, and the provincial governments, some of those places do need our help," Khalilzad said on "Fox News Sunday."

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