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

Times Staff Writer

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.

After a brief stint at a think tank, Khalilzad joined the first President Bush's administration on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He would become one of the president's most hawkish policy advisors, arguing that the military should have pushed on through to Baghdad and toppled Hussein.

In 1992, Khalilzad put together the Defense Planning Guidance draft, a big-picture, strategic vision of U.S. dominance in the post-Soviet era. The ideas outlined in the document still guide his thinking, he said.

"The idea was that a global rival would emerge if a critical region was dominated by a hostile power, and a critical region was defined as a region that has economic, technical or other resources," Khalilzad said.

Iraq and the rest of the Middle East can be considered critical because of the region's vast oil reserves.

Khalilzad said the threat posed by extremism in the region stretching from North Africa to South Asia makes it one where the United States must expand its influence.

"This entire region from Pakistan to Morocco needs to become, over time, of course, a normal region, because a lot of the security problems of this era are coming from this region," he said.

Khalilzad's day-to-day work usually involves less heady tasks than formulating grand regional policy. His focus in Iraq has been on projecting an image of objectivity by meeting weekly with dozens of Iraqis from every sect, political party and ethnicity. Khalilzad often makes a point of keeping those meetings as informal as possible.

After a speech about the importance of budgetary accounting in Iraq, Khalilzad stopped for a short lunch with Finance Minister Bayan Jabr, Planning Minister Ali Baban and British Ambassador William Patey, who lives next door to him in the Green Zone.

Aides say the diplomats often have late-night meetings, with one or the other slipping through a garden fence that separates their houses. "He's got an energy and a deep understanding of Iraqi politics that people here appreciate," Patey said.

Although the lunch was casual, politics suffused the conversation -- the men discussed the deteriorating situation in the southern port city of Basra mostly, often throwing in some gallows humor about an incompetent official or a corrupt political group. Khalilzad picked at a salad and, after 15 minutes, apologized for having to leave.

The diversity of players in Khalilzad's circle could be seen at a recent reception he held at his residence. As servants prepared a smorgasbord of cheeses, sliced salmon and loaves of bread in fish shapes, guests filed in, including at least one vice president, several ministers, clerics, academics, opposition figures, generals and lawmakers.

Khalilzad is skilled at corralling arguments or questions he finds unpleasant or inappropriate by speaking in a succession of run-on sentences. Maysoon Damluji, an elegant, London-educated lawmaker who was at the reception, expressed concern that only 10% of Iraq's ministers were women.

"We're very upset," she said, speaking of Iraq's besieged women's organizations. "We're signing petitions now asking the government to correct the percentage for women."

The ambassador, credited with shepherding Iraq through its constitutional referendum, first national elections and the formation of the first full-term government, responded that the constitution required that 25% of the seats in the Council of Representatives go to women.

"That was one of the great achievements of the Iraqi Constitution," Khalilzad said, speaking over Damluji's objections. Eventually, he silenced her. "Twenty-five percent. More than in the American Congress!"

The exchange was cordial -- Damluji and the ambassador smiled through their light parrying -- but pointed. Before Damluji could mount another argument, Khalilzad spied an arriving guest and deftly moved to greet him.

Throughout the evening, Khalilzad continued to mix through the crowd. The diversity of sects, political parties and personalities gathered in the grand room was a promise of his vision for Iraq. Outside, military helicopters rattling overhead and concentric rings of armed guards, blast walls and concertina wire bore witness to the work that yet remains.

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