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Outgoing envoy says US losing patience with Iraq

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad leaves Iraq this week. (REUTERS/Mahmoud al-Badri/Pool)

BAGHDAD -- Outgoing US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned Iraqi leaders yesterday that they risked losing the support of an impatient US population if they do not "step up and take the tough decisions necessary for success."

He also said that US and Iraqi officials had opened talks with representatives of some Sunni Arab insurgent groups in hopes of forging a united front against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Khalilzad, who is President Bush's nominee to represent the United States at the United Nations, leaves Iraq this week after 21 months. He will be replaced within days by Ryan Crocker, who most recently served as the American ambassador to Pakistan.

Addressing a farewell news conference, Khalilzad said Iraqi leaders had taken important steps toward overcoming their differences, including approving draft legislation on sharing Iraq's massive oil wealth.

But with pressure mounting in Washington to set a timetable for US withdrawal, he said Iraqis needed to act quickly on the remaining obstacles to reconciliation.

"I know that we are an impatient people," Khalilzad warned. "I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out."

Khalilzad spent his last months here pressing Iraq's leaders to disband militias, set a date for local elections, revise the laws that removed ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from the civil service, and change the constitution to make it acceptable to all ethnic and religious groups.

Khalilzad declined to provide details of his contacts with Iraqi insurgent groups, citing Al Qaeda's attempts to derail the process.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Khalilzad held talks last year with men believed to represent major factions, including the Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, both made up largely of former members of Hussein's army and political party.

Khalilzad confirmed at the news conference that US Embassy and military personnel, as well as Iraqi officials, had met with groups opposed to the current government, and said these talks continued.

He said some Sunni Arab tribes and insurgent groups shared common ground with the Shi'ite-led government in their opposition to Al Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for many of the most sensational attacks against Sunnis and Shi'ite Muslims alike.

He denied the strategy was at odds with the US government's policy of not negotiating with terrorists, saying the goal was to "separate more and more groups away from Al Qaeda" and encourage their cooperation against terror.

But he ruled out talks with Al Qaeda.

Despite many challenges, Khalilzad said he believed Iraq was on the right track.

He said violence in Baghdad had dropped nearly a quarter since the start of a security crackdown, now in its sixth week. Iraqi security forces were shouldering a growing share of the burden, he said. And Iraqi civilians were providing a steady stream of tips.

The Shi'ite-led government was also behaving in an evenhanded way toward lawbreakers on all sides, he said. US and Iraqi military leaders reported last week that more than 700 Shi'ite militiamen have been arrested since the security crackdown began Feb. 13.

Khalilzad's cautiously optimistic assessment came as violence raged for a third day in a belt of towns south of the capital that have seen frequent clashes between Sunni Arab and Shi'ite militants.

Gunmen armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades traded fire with Iraqi security forces in Iskandariya, the Iraqi Army said. At least three people, including one civilian, were killed and five injured in the clashes.

At least two mortar rounds landed near the Iskandariya bank during the fighting, killing two more civilians and injuring three, police said.

In Haswa, scene of repeated violence in the past two days, a body rigged with explosives was pushed out of a car and detonated near an Iraqi checkpoint, injuring six soldiers, Iraqi Army officials said.

In Baghdad, a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in a southern section of the city killed one officer and injured three, police said.

North of the capital, an insurgent was killed and another injured in the process of planting a bomb in front of the home of a police officer in Hawija, police said.

A police officer was injured when a roadside bomb targeted his patrol in downtown Kirkuk and an unspecified number of bodies were recovered from an area just west of the city, police said. The victims had been shot execution-style and showed signs of torture, they said.