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U.S. power shift worries Iraqi leaders

Some fear that the Democrats will hasten the departure of American troops and stem the flow of funds.

November 09, 2006|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In government offices shielded by concrete blast walls, some Iraqi officials appeared concerned Wednesday that the power shift in the U.S. Congress and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could effect major changes in policy toward their bloodied nation.

Members of Iraq's dominant Shiite Muslim political bloc said worries were raised at a closed-door caucus that the Democrats' ascent on Capitol Hill could hasten the departure of U.S. troops and stem the flow of funds to their beleaguered government while insurgent and sectarian violence rages.

U.S. officials had already brought up the possibility of reducing aid to Iraq. The issue came up during meetings to persuade Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to accept timelines to make tough security and political decisions, such as dismantling Shiite militias blamed for nightly killing rampages against Sunni Arabs, who make up the backbone of the insurgency.

"Whoever will be in the House should now keep the promises that were made to Iraq regarding the arming of security forces, rebuilding Iraq and supporting the political process," said an anxious Diyadhin Fayadh, a Shiite cleric and member of the United Iraqi Alliance parliamentary bloc.

He said some Shiite leaders were discussing ways to reach out to the Democrats and convince them that a hasty pullout would plunge Iraq into even more chaos.

"As Democrats have a program to deal with Iraq, we also should have a program for dealing with them," he said.

Other Iraqi politicians, however, said the changes in Washington were unlikely to make a major difference here.

"I expect the change will affect the embassy, cooperation programs and maybe the political and economic support," said Hassan Senaid, a Shiite lawmaker in Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. "I don't expect a strategic change like a sudden withdrawal."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad appeared twice on national television Wednesday to reassure Iraqis that America's commitment to Iraq would not diminish.

"The president is the architect of U.S. foreign policy. He is the commander in chief of our armed forces. He understands what's at stake in Iraq," Khalilzad said in broadcast remarks to Iraqi journalists gathered at an embassy reception. "He is committed to working with both houses of the American Congress to get support needed for the mission in Iraq to succeed."

Many here believe Khalilzad will follow Rumsfeld in resigning after President Bush on Wednesday promised a "fresh look" at Iraq.

But Iraqi politicians are mostly in the dark about what to expect, local analysts said, noting there has been much criticism of Republican policy in Iraq but no clear indication of what Democrats would do differently.

"I think the Democrats have perhaps used opportunistically the failure of Bush in Iraq as a pretext to win the elections," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad. "But I don't think the Democrats have an alternative."

A delegation of Iraqi politicians, including Abdelaziz Hakim, a cleric who heads one of the two main parties in the Shiite alliance, plans to visit the United States to meet with Bush and other officials about the way forward, said a follower of the cleric, Hameed Mouala.

Some Sunni Arab politicians will also be making overtures, said Adnan Dulaimi, a leading member of the Sunni bloc in parliament.

"We haven't had any contact with the Democrats before, but we wrote a message congratulating them, and we asked to meet with them, to know their intentions regarding the Iraqi issue," he said.

But others within the governing coalition are taking a tougher line. "We won't meet with anyone representing the [U.S.-led] coalition," said Nassar Rubaie, a follower of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Few Iraqis outside the corridors of government appeared to take much interest in the developments in Washington. Those who did expressed a wide range of emotions.

Hawbeer Ahmed Mohammed, a 35-year-old teacher in the northern city of Irbil, was dismissive. "The Democrats and the Republicans are two faces of the same coin," he said.

Others clung to dreams of improvement.

"My hope is that they would set a withdrawal timetable, because three years into this occupation or liberation -- whatever you want to call it -- our hopes for being able to live a decent and honorable life in our country have been shattered," said Ibrahim Abdul-Hadi, 40, who owns a kitchen appliance store in a predominantly Shiite part of east Baghdad. "The situation is only getting worse on a daily basis."

But across town, in a strife-torn Sunni neighborhood, the outlook was bleaker.

"There will definitely be a significant difference regarding domestic American policy but none regarding foreign policy," predicted Mohammed Falluji, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer in west Baghdad. The Democrats "have been using Iraq simply as a means to their own ends, but the coming days will show that the bloodshed will continue -- if not escalate."


Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi and Said Rifai, and special correspondents in Baghdad and Irbil contributed to this report.

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