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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

For U.S. Diplomat, the Work and Politicking Never End

July 11, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Zalmay Khalilzad usually starts work at 8 a.m. and doesn't rest for the next 16 hours or so, in a day that seems divided into stopwatch segments.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, the best-known American working in this war-torn nation, has alternately dazzled and discomfited observers with his hyper-interpersonal style, cultivating dozens of one-on-one relationships with Iraqi leaders.

"It's far more complicated and far more difficult a transition that Iraq is going through than I had anticipated," said Khalilzad, who recently offered a reporter access over four days for an inside look at his work in Iraq after nearly a year on the job. "The number of players are very many, and there is a significant degree of polarization and distrust."

The tall and dark Khalilzad, clad in a succession of natty suits, takes pains to meet with as many people from as many political, ethnic and religious backgrounds as possible. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent Kurd, said the diplomat had successfully threaded through the nation's competing interests so that "the U.S. stands equidistant from all the groups."

That makes for a long day, broken by rare stints away from his post. He was scheduled to be in Washington today for meetings and to address the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

Khalilzad generally begins his day in Baghdad by reading media reports on the Internet at his residence in the fortified Green Zone. He lives in a stately two-story house with a graceful garden, shimmering stone floors, Persian carpets -- and a steel security door.

By 8:20 a.m., a convoy of armored SUVs pulls up to his doorstep and he leaves his compound for a harried three-minute drive to the U.S. Embassy. Because of security concerns, door-to-door service, even for short distances within the Green Zone, is standard for Khalilzad.

Ten minutes later, Khalilzad arrives at his second-floor office in what once was one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. The garish building, with its 10-foot-doors and mirrored ceilings, courses with thousands of uniformed officers and civilians conducting nearly every aspect of U.S. policy in Iraq.

At his office, Khalilzad gets a series of briefings from intelligence officials, military commanders, reconstruction officials, political policy experts and public relations specialists. A frequent collaborator is Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, whose office is next to Khalilzad's suite.

The ambassador also has daily videoconferences with his bosses in Washington, either national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a flat-screen monitor opposite his broad wooden desk. Otherwise, the monitor is tuned to several simultaneous newscasts, including Al Jazeera, CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

By noon, Khalilzad's focus shifts outward. He meets several times a week with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, who also live in the Green Zone, and also has regular meetings with key Cabinet ministers.

Khalilzad and Maliki visited a Baghdad power plant last month to assess reconstruction efforts in the electricity sector. Despite the short distance from the Green Zone to the plant, they arrived in two Black Hawk helicopters guarded by a menacing duo of helicopter gunships. Private Blackwater USA security guards took up positions inside and outside the plant, and Iraqi security forces set up concentric perimeters with roadblocks and sniper positions.

The visit came on the last of the four days of reporting access, and it was the first time that Khalilzad was seen venturing outside the Green Zone. But tight security could not keep the power plant visit from veering off the ambassador's intended message of economic progress.

"I don't have enough engineers," Abdul Kareem Mohammed, the plant manager, complained as Khalilzad and Maliki toured the facility. The poor-quality fuel constantly gums up the turbines, Mohammed continued, and insurgent attacks on power lines are a continual problem, forcing the plant to shut down for cleaning several times a week and contributing to Baghdad's persistent blackouts.

Khalilzad acknowledged the problems and said he was confident the new electricity minister would resolve them. "We stand ready to help Iraq stand on its own two feet," he said, echoing an increasingly common refrain among Americans here.

Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan and educated in Beirut and Chicago. He became a U.S. citizen and rose through the ranks of academia before joining the Reagan administration. There, he guided military strategy discussions during the United States' covert anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan.

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