Iraqi official calls on West to do more to end election impasse

Foreign minister also warns of a political vacuum

By Lara Jakes
Associated Press / May 2, 2010

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BAGHDAD — Iraq’s foreign minister chided the United States and Britain for not taking an active role in resolving his country’s bitter election dispute and accused Washington of being more concerned with sending home US soldiers.

In an interview published yesterday in a London-based Arabic language newspaper, Hoshyar Zebari also warned of a political vacuum in the country still struggling to seat a government almost two months after the March 7 election as American troops leave prepare to leave.

Zebari complained that the United States and Britain have stood on the sidelines of the current dispute and appeared to urge them to be more aggressive in pushing Iraq’s rival political blocs toward a compromise.

“Their role is absent in this election, and this has made matters more difficult,’’ Zebari said of the United States and Britain in comments in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He noted that after Iraq’s 2005 elections, both nations played a key role in cajoling Iraqi politicians into forming a government.

The foreign minister’s stance appeared to put him at odds with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has slammed a proposal put forward by his chief rival that sought international intervention in setting up a new government. Maliki said such a role would undermine Iraq’s efforts to become fully independent.

The prime minister’s Shi’ite coalition narrowly lost by two seats to former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiya, but neither garnered enough to rule alone, setting off protracted wrangling over the formation of the next government.

Zebari also suggested that Washington should reconsider its Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing all US military combat troops from Iraq if a new government is still not formed by midsummer.

“The American opinion so far is to let Iraqis solve their problems by themselves,’’ Zebari said. “Their message to us is: ‘Solve your problems quickly so that we can withdraw quickly.’ ’’

In a second interview, with Iraq’s al-Sharqiya TV, Zebari said neighboring counties were waiting for US troops to leave so they could step in and fill Iraq’s political vacuum.

“This is one of the most dangerous things Iraq would face,’’ Zebari said. He did not name any specific countries, but many officials have voiced concern in recent weeks that Iran is seeking greater influence in Iraq.

Shortly after taking office last year, President Obama set the August deadline for sending home all but 50,000 US troops from Iraq. The White House can still push back that date, although US officials have insisted so far that the timeline stands.

The top US military commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said last year that he planned to hold troop levels steady until two months after the elections, primarily to give a new Iraqi government time to settle. But that timeframe expires next week, and Baghdad has made little headway on forming a new government.

The US Embassy in Baghdad did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue openly, disputed Zebari’s view. He said US officials meet regularly with Iraq’s rival political blocs and have been pushing for weeks for a compromise.

Compounding the political tension is widespread fear that Al Qaeda and other militants will take advantage of the impasse to launch attacks. New data from Iraq’s health, interior and defense ministries show that more civilians were killed in attacks in April than any other month so far in 2010.