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Iraq resigned to troop cut, envoy says

Acknowledgment by Baghdad's ambassador could affect debate in the U.S. Congress over the war's future.

July 18, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As Washington wrestles over the future of the Iraq war, Iraqi leaders already have resigned themselves to the likelihood that the Americans soon will withdraw at least some of their troops, the country's ambassador to the United States said Tuesday.

Samir Sumaidaie also said that there was insufficient time in the next two months for the U.S. military's troop buildup strategy in Iraq to prove itself, an indication that he expected little progress on the key measures of success by the time a pivotal American military assessment is compiled in September.

Sumaidaie's comments to a group of reporters in Washington were one of the clearest signals yet of the pessimism overtaking the Bush administration's closest allies in the Iraqi government. Such an acknowledgment by a top Iraqi leader could affect the debate over the war's future in Congress, where Democratic and Republican lawmakers are challenging President Bush's appeal for more time.

"Most Iraqi leaders have now come not only to acknowledge but almost to accept the inevitability of some level of drawback of American troops in the not-too-distant future," said Sumaidaie, who was previously Iraq's interior minister and United Nations envoy. "And there's a lot of thinking about how to deal with that ... how to adjust ourselves to that reality."

The ambassador said Iraqi leaders were engaged in a desperate juggling act.

"They are juggling so many balls, and they know they have been handed even more balls," he said. "And suddenly, one of the hands will have to go."

Bush has struggled to prevent Congress from judging his troop buildup strategy before the mid-September assessment, but Sumaidaie expressed doubt that much would change, even with U.S. troop levels boosted to about 158,000.

"I think September, frankly, is too soon to really show anything more than an inkling of its potential," Sumaidaie said in a briefing at the Iraqi Embassy.

His viewpoint was reinforced by recent developments in Baghdad, where progress on key legislation has ground to a halt and Iraqi lawmakers are due to begin a monthlong break July 31.

Many of the benchmarks were set last year by a new Iraqi government and endorsed by Bush.

Though he acknowledged a lack of progress, Sumaidaie said the Iraqi government wanted the troop buildup to remain in place "until we see real fruit."

"The tragedy will be that after four years of learning and making mistakes, just when we started to get to grips with the situation, just when both the Americans and the Iraqis have begun to understand the dynamics ... and get some of the answers, that the rug would be pulled out," he said.

The debate in the United States leaves Iraqi government officials to try to anticipate the future of their relationship with the Americans, which elicits both gratitude and resentment.

Last weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, chafing under pressure from Washington, said Iraqi forces could handle the country's security challenge and American troops could leave "any time they want."

A senior Iraqi official said in an interview Tuesday that Maliki's comments reflected "partly pride, partly it's trying to resist [U.S.] pressure."

The official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said: "Everybody knows our security forces are not strong enough and there would be a lot of bloodletting. But he wasn't going to say that."

Even though Iraq is sometimes moving "one step forward, two steps back," it is also making progress, the official said.

The government's goal, he added, has been to convince Americans that Iraq is not a lost cause.

"Are we going to make it? It's an open question," he said.

The official rejected as "fuzzy thinking" proposals to scale back U.S. forces and limit their mission to training Iraqis, searching for militants and supporting the Iraqi military.

"If you're just fighting for your survival, you might as well go home," he said.

In trying to gauge progress, U.S. officials have put far too much weight on the major pieces of legislation aimed at reconciliation, the official said. Those measures, he continued, "are going to be the hardest ones to deliver on."

But Iraq could demonstrate progress in other ways, the official said, including naming a new Cabinet -- thus replacing Maliki's often feuding ministers with a slate of nonpartisan technocrats who could earn wide public confidence.

For the benchmark goals sought by U.S. officials, little time remains.

Legislation on managing the Iraqi oil industry and sharing revenue was considered a good prospect for passage before the July 31 recess, but it has not been brought up for debate.

The legislation appears to stand little chance of passage because of opposition from Kurdish, Sunni Arab and some Shiite political parties.

In the first hint of political progress in several weeks, the 30-member bloc of lawmakers loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr announced Tuesday that they would end their boycott of parliament.

The boycott began after the June 13 bombing of the Golden Mosque, a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Also Tuesday, an official from the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc, said its 44 lawmakers were expected to end their boycott soon.

The return of the lawmakers does not guarantee that any benchmark legislation will pass, however. Both of the returning blocs oppose the oil legislation.

Another of the benchmarks, legislation to end the exclusion of members of the former ruling Baath Party from government posts, has stalled.

A date for provincial elections, which are considered crucial for bringing more Sunni Arabs into governing roles, has not been set.

A fourth key benchmark, revising the constitution, will not be reached until the end of September, at the earliest.

Times staff writer Tina Susman in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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