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U.S. envoy makes final tour

The outgoing Khalilzad visits the Kurdish north, an area he calls a `shining example of what's possible in Iraq.'

March 23, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

IRBIL, IRAQ — This is what all of Iraq was supposed to look like four years after Saddam Hussein's fall: a construction boom of apartment blocks and commercial buildings, universities full of students, an airport with direct flights to Europe and the Middle East and visitors pouring in.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad took a farewell lap Thursday in the Kurdish autonomous region, showing off some of the fruits of Washington's multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort even as other parts of the country remain engulfed in bloodshed.

"All of Iraq is not like Baghdad," said Khalilzad, President Bush's nominee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

But Khalilzad acknowledged later in the tour that Iraqis still needed "to make the compromises necessary to reduce the sources of violence." He also said some of Iraq's neighbors "have not behaved as neighbors should ... rather put fuel on the fire."

Khalilzad's first stop was a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new $200-million water treatment plant outside Irbil that serves about 330,000 people. Wearing one of his trademark dark suits, he sat on a sofa under a tent festooned with Kurdish flags and exchanged pleasantries with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani as a brass band played and folk dancers performed.

The Iraqi flag was nowhere in sight. To many in the Kurdish north, the national banner symbolizes years of oppression under Hussein, who unleashed chemical weapons against the Kurds in a 1980s military campaign.

Khalilzad praised the region as a "shining example of what's possible in Iraq when local leaders make a commitment to each other to work together." But he also urged local authorities to stamp out corruption and reinforce the rule of law.

He congratulated leaders for reaching agreement with the central government on draft legislation to share Iraq's oil wealth, and urged them to do more to achieve a "national compact" among the country's Sunni Arab, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish communities.

Barzani, however, said that Kurds expected their "just demands" to be met. Among them: a fair share of national revenues and foreign reconstruction funds, freedom to develop their region and a promised referendum by year's end on the future of the disputed city of Kirkuk, which Kurds hope to incorporate into the autonomous region.

"Our patience is not unlimited," Barzani said. "What was taken from us by force must be returned to us peacefully and democratically."

Ethnic violence is on the rise in Kirkuk, where Arabs and Turkmens also have staked claims to control the oil-rich city.

From the water plant, Khalilzad headed into the hills for a farewell call and elaborate lunch with Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani. The nearly half-mile-long convoy raced through verdant fields dotted with families spending a balmy spring afternoon picnicking and flying kites.

But this was also a working trip. In Sulaymaniya, Khalilzad huddled with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to put the finishing touches on proposals to reverse the draconian laws that removed former ranking members of Hussein's Baath Party from office.

Revising those laws has been a key demand of Sunnis, whose frustration and mounting suspicion of Iraq's Shiite-led government has fueled the violence.

Khalilzad, a Sunni from Afghanistan, spent much of his 21-month tenure as ambassador in such meetings, trying to persuade Iraq's ethnic and religious leaders to work together to undercut support for the deadly insurgency.

Khalilzad is credited with helping Iraqis form an inclusive government after landmark 2005 elections and with helping them reach agreement on a constitution through months of tortuous negotiations.

He said he would leave Iraq within days. Aides declined to specify the date, citing security concerns. Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who most recently served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, is expected to arrive soon after to replace him.

Talabani, a former Kurdish guerrilla fighter, said he was proud to have "such a good comrade in arms."

"We both struggled for liberation and we both, I think, achieved good results," Talabani said.

Khalilzad, who first met Talabani when the United States enforced a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region in the 1990s, promised to return.

"I have Kurdistan and Iraq in my blood and my heart," he said repeatedly throughout the day. "No matter where I am or what position I might hold, I will do my very best to be of service."

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