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US commander warns Iraq on lack of progress

Cites growing opposition to war seen in Congress

Admiral William J. Fallon (left) with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq in March. Fallon emphasized the urgency of demonstrating results; Maliki said the process is a long journey. (AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD -- The top American military commander for the Middle East has warned Iraq's prime minister that the Iraqi government needs to make tangible political progress by next month to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress.

In a discussion that mixed gentle coaxing with a sober appraisal of politics in Baghdad and Washington, the commander, Admiral William J. Fallon, told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a meeting Sunday that the Iraqi government should aim to complete a law on the division of oil proceeds by next month.

Iraq's Shi'ite dominated-government, Fallon added, has consolidated power and should have the confidence to reach out to its opponents. "You have the power," Fallon said. "You should take the initiative."

The admiral's appeal, which was made in the presence of Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, a senior political adviser to the command, and this reporter, elicited an assurance from Maliki that he hoped to make some progress over the coming weeks. But he also offered a lengthy account of the tribulations facing the Iraqi government, including tenuous security, distrustful neighboring Sunni states, and a complex legal agenda.

"There are lots of difficulties that are not well understood from outside," Maliki said. "Still, we're trying hard."

Fallon, who is in charge of the US Central Command, used a whirlwind trip to Iraq to reinforce Washington's public and private message that political progress is lagging. It is a message that has been delivered by several other American officials, but the deadlines have often been allowed to slip.

While Fallon emphasized the urgency of demonstrating results, Maliki cast the political process as a long journey from dictatorship to democracy. "The end result will be marked in history," said Maliki, who was flanked by Mowaffak al-Rubaie, his national security adviser, and two other aides.

When President Bush decided in January to increase American troop levels in Iraq, the purpose was not to win a military victory but to improve security so the Iraqi leaders could carry out a program of political reconciliation. But now that the troops are in place, the Iraqis have little political progress to show .

In some ways, this summer does not seem like an auspicious period for a political breakthrough. Some Maliki aides fear that Sunni members of the government are conspiring against them with the support of Sunni Arab states.

Iraqis are aware that the Bush administration has promised to report to Congress in September on what its new Iraq strategy has accomplished. The Bush administration is obliged by congressional legislation to issue an interim report in July on Iraq developments.

In the meeting, Fallon focused on Iraq's oil law, assuming it was closest to completion. "Is it reasonable to expect it to be completed in July?" he asked. "We have to show some progress in July for the upcoming report."

Maliki said that the Kurds had raised concerns about revenue-sharing arrangements, but he indicated some progress on the oil law would be made. Crocker pointed out that it was important that progress include the resolution of that thorny issue.

At one point, Maliki wondered aloud whether Congress would really give Iraqis credit for tackling tough issues if they completed the oil law. Fallon reassured him that most Americans wanted the Iraqi government to succeed.

At another point, Maliki asserted that there is already some good news to report. "The September report should list the accomplishments," he said. "There are lots of positive developments. Our spirit is not broken. Another success is that no one is above the law."

Fallon brought up the question of Iraq's security forces. Fielding an army and police force is not just a matter of training troops and providing equipment, he said. Iraqis had to be confident that some units were not carrying out a sectarian agenda.