U.S. Frustrated by Pace of Change in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Four months after Iraq’s new government took office, U.S. officials are growing impatient with leaders in Baghdad and pushing them to move more quickly on the difficult agenda confronting them.

The top U.S. goal in Iraq is to help the regime led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to suppress sectarian violence, strengthen the fragile government and economy and move toward national reconciliation, senior officials say. One of those officials, in a recent interview, praised goals Maliki had set in several of those areas, but suggested more could be done.

“The rhetoric has to be matched by concrete action,” said the official, who asked to remain unidentified, citing the sensitivity of the subject. The Iraqi government “needs to begin acting, on the ground, on its own behalf.”


Though the administration has confidence in the new prime minister, U.S. officials “are frustrated ... there is a little bit of impatience,” another senior U.S. official said.

President Bush has voiced similar sentiments, stressing U.S. patience and pledging continued support in an Aug. 31 speech, “as long as the new government continues to make the hard decisions necessary to advance a unified, democratic and peaceful Iraq.”

U.S. officials maintained that the election of a full-term government last December would finally enable Shiite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to agree on political accords, opening the way to peace and stability. So far, however, the Iraqi government continues to be divided by factional quarrels, and sectarian violence is spiraling.

More than 30 bodies of victims slain execution-style were found Friday. Over the last five days, 142 such killings have been reported. In addition, two U.S. troops -- a Marine in Al Anbar province and a soldier in Baghdad -- were reported killed. The U.S. military also announced a soldier had been missing since Thursday, when a bomb exploded west of Baghdad and killed at least two troops.

U.S. and Iraqi officials announced a new effort Friday to cut off the flow of weapons and bombs into Baghdad. The plan, announced by Bush during a White House news conference and confirmed by Iraqi officials, is to dig a series of trenches that would form a perimeter of about 60 miles around the city. Checkpoints on every road leading in would restrict entry into the capital, Interior Ministry officials said.

Overall, Iraqi government services have not improved and the most contentious decisions lie ahead.


Maliki, whose government was installed May 20, succeeded Ibrahim Jafari, another Shiite leader for whom the Bush administration at first had high hopes. But Jafari failed to deliver essential services, and it became clear that he had only vague plans for leading the country out of its predicament. U.S. officials lost confidence in him.

Should a second government fail, it would not only raise questions about Maliki’s effectiveness but might indicate that anyone would have difficulty leading Iraq. Few in the U.S. government so far have suggested anything as drastic as another change in the leadership, although some, frustrated by the lack of progress, have voiced a private view in recent weeks that Iraq might be better off under a traditional Middle Eastern strongman.

“But that’s not the policy,” said the second senior U.S. official, discussing the idea of changing governments again. “The policy is to prevent that from happening by making this government succeed.”

A key element in Maliki’s program is the effort to reconcile the country’s warring sects, tribes and militias. Committees have been formed and some tribal meetings have been convened. Yet the program remains in its early stages nearly three months after Maliki unveiled it.

The first senior U.S. official said that reconciliation was “a tough issue, but progress has got to be made.” He said places such as Northern Ireland, Liberia and Ivory Coast had faced much the same challenge.

“Without a reconciliation deal, without a package which deals decisively and comprehensively with nongovernmental armed groups ... you don’t bring an end to any conflict anywhere in the world,” the official said.

The Bush administration disagrees with the Iraqi prime minister on some issues, including Maliki’s condemnation of Israel’s July invasion of Lebanon to confront the Shiite militia Hezbollah. Maliki also disagrees with the U.S. military’s efforts to strike at the paramilitary forces of Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr, who is one source of Maliki’s political support. And this week, Maliki visited Iran, whose long-strained relations with Washington have grown increasingly acrimonious.

Despite their growing desire for action, U.S. officials say they recognize the difficulty Maliki faces in trying to lead a fractious government with only the narrowest base of public support. For example, though a top goal of both the Bush administration and the Maliki government is suppressing sectarian violence, it is difficult for the prime minister to try to bring pressure on groups associated with Sadr.

“People here recognize that it’s a political reality that he depends on the votes of groups which, while not all dirty, have some ties to Shia death squads,” the second senior official said. “He’s a decent man, a serious person, but there are realities.”

In addition to action to stem sectarian violence, U.S. officials want the Maliki government to move on a new investment law to bolster the economy as well as legislation to restructure the state oil company and set new rules for investing in Iraq’s petroleum industry.

In an appearance at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center in Washington this week, Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Salih said the government had imposed a “very tough timetable” on itself for action on the legislative agenda.

He said parliament should pass the investment law this month, and next month should vote on a law to allow former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to return to government and society. In December, the government will introduce its proposal for managing its petroleum reserves and adopt a law on the disarmament and re-integration of former anti-government militants, Salih said.

Analysts say the issues all are divisive and that action will be difficult. “There’s no secret about what needs to be done, in broad terms, to put Iraq back together, in a national consensus,” said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question is, can it be done? The American frustration is only natural.”

Another regional specialist said the Americans may have domestic reasons for publicly pushing the Iraqi government to move faster. “The goal here may be, ‘Don’t blame us -- blame them,’ ” said Juan R. Cole, a veteran observer of Iraq at the University of Michigan.

U.S. officials say that also at the top of their agenda for Iraq is a renewed effort to draw financial and political support from regional governments and major world powers.

American government officials and their Iraqi counterparts have been frustrated by the reluctance of other countries to help what they see as the weak government of a troubled land.

The first U.S. official said that neighbors “have been very slow to move” to give political support, direct aid or even debt forgiveness. “That needs to change,” he said.

Correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.