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Administration May Face Tough Sell on Its Next Ambassadorship to Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Facing another challenge, the Bush administration must find an ambassador to war-torn Iraq who not only wants the job but can be confirmed by a bitterly divided Senate, officials and experts say.

With only 13 weeks before the scheduled June 30 hand-over of sovereignty in Iraq, White House officials are seeking a nominee to head a huge new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and they are particularly concerned about how to win approval from supporters and critics of the war.

Some potential candidates may be deterred by the physical dangers or the difficulty of rebuilding Iraq. Others may be dissuaded by the increasingly polarized debate about the merits of the Iraq mission or the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

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Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been warning the administration that it needs to move quickly to ensure that the ambassador will be in place by the end of June.

“I have told people in the White House, ‘You need an American icon to fill that position, and we need to know pretty soon,’ ” Lugar said last week in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Though some senior administration officials express confidence that they can find a candidate, aides acknowledge concerns. One U.S. official described the task as a “stinker of an issue.”

“Given the debate that’s raged ... it’s hard for me to imagine many people of significant status are going to want this kind of pain,” the official said. He said he also found it difficult to imagine candidates who would be acceptable to both the war’s supporters and opponents.

A U.S. official in Iraq said those who have been under consideration for the post include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, senior National Security Council aide Robert D. Blackwill and career diplomat Thomas R. Pickering.

Pickering is a government veteran who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush. Blackwill, who also has a distinguished diplomatic resume, was a foreign policy advisor to George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign.

Wolfowitz, considered a primary advocate for the Iraq invasion, is the type of nominee most likely to touch off a partisan fight over confirmation, said several administration officials and congressional aides.

Charley Cooper, a spokesman for Wolfowitz, said there was “no substance” to reports that the White House had already selected Wolfowitz for the job. A Defense Department official who asked to remain unidentified said, “I think he’d prefer to stay” at the Pentagon.

An administration official denied that Blackwill was under consideration. An aide said Pickering had no plans to leave his post at Boeing Co.

Other State Department and White House aides said that although all three were qualified candidates, none was likely to be chosen. A White House official said the hunt was still in a relatively early, “brainstorming” phase.

Some have suggested that L. Paul Bremer III, chief of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, might be designated, while others suggest well-known political figures for their ability to win Senate support across the aisle.

One Senate Republican aide said it was a “pretty steep climb” to try to get confirmation within three months, adding that the task could prove far tougher if antiwar Democrats challenge the nominee.

The Republican aide said the administration had not yet formally floated any names on Capitol Hill, a sign that officials might still be in an early stage of their deliberations.

One senior administration official who said he was not closely involved in the selection process said he believed the best choice for the ambassadorship would be a respected former senator or governor. Such a person presumably could attract support from both parties.

However, another U.S. official said he believed that Bremer could end up being the default candidate for the job. Bremer might even be able to win Senate confirmation “on the argument, why change horses in midstream?” the official said.

Bremer, however, has insisted that he has no plans to stay.

The senior administration official said that shifting Bremer to the new job would send the wrong message, suggesting that sovereignty had returned in name only.

Whoever the choice, the new ambassador will need a variety of skills, analysts say. The U.S. official said the ambassador should have sufficient stature to “call the White House and get [national security advisor] Condoleezza Rice on the phone right away.”

James Dobbins, who was the administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said the Iraq ambassador will have to knit together a coalition of countries and international organizations, in an environment in which “the United States will be the most important player but not necessarily in charge.”

Within Iraq, the ambassador will have to be able to bring together various ethnic and political groups, providing leadership as the United States did during the occupation, but “without having the same formal authority, and without occupying the same kind of [visible] position,” said Dobbins, who is now at the Rand Corp. think tank.

He added that “anybody they find is going to have a hard time doing the job. It’s not impossible. But it won’t be easy.”

Richter reported from Washington and Sanders from Baghdad.


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