By Karen DeYoung Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007; Page A22
BAGHDAD, Dec. 1 -- The Bush administration, concerned that recent security gains in Iraq may be undermined by continuing political gridlock, is pushing the Iraqi government to complete long-delayed reform legislation within six months.
"Some will tell you, 'No problem,' " Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said Saturday, referring to his conversations with senior Iraqi government officials during an extended visit over the past week. "Nobody's told me these things are impossible."
The U.S. military has expressed pointed concern that the Iraqi government is not taking advantage of the "window of opportunity" that this year's increased troop presence was designed to provide. Senior officers have said it will be critical in the next few months for the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move decisively toward political reconciliation with minority Sunnis, who have joined U.S. forces in the fight against the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Negroponte said the Iraqis understand that time is running out for passage of laws to equitably distribute oil revenue and codify the separation of central government and provincial powers, among others mandated last spring by the U.S. Congress. "I don't doubt that six months from now, we'll look back and they shall have been passed," he said.
Negroponte spoke in an interview at the U.S. ambassador's Green Zone residence after a week-long tour of nine Iraqi cities and conversations with top provincial and central government leaders. The trip, among the longest and most extensive by a senior U.S. official since the 2003 invasion, remained secret for security reasons until his return to Baghdad late this week.
Negroponte's stops, in addition to the capital, included Basra, Hilla and Kut to the south; Baqubah, in still-violent Diyala province northeast of Baghdad; Kirkuk and Salahuddin in the north; and Ramadi and Fallujah in the west.
Negroponte had traveled to some of those cities while he served for nine months as ambassador here in 2004-05. But others, such as Ramadi -- until recently, a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq -- were "forbidden territory," he said.
Extensive violence during the first half of this year, followed by a sharp decrease in attacks on the military and Iraqi civilians over the past several months, have dominated discussions in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail. Congressional questioning of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker during a progress report in September focused on whether then-nascent security progress would continue.
Now, with an increasingly optimistic security outlook, Democrats have begun to reposition themselves with a focus on lagging political reconciliation.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said after visiting here last week that he thought President Bush's troop "surge" strategy was working. When Republicans seized on the comment as an acknowledgment of White House success, Murtha issued a statement saying that while the "surge has created a window of opportunity, unfortunately the sacrifice of our troops has not been met by the Iraqi government and they have failed to capitalize on the political and diplomatic steps that the surge was designed to provide."
In a separate interview here, the embassy's chief economic affairs officer, Charles P. Ries, said Iraq's "economy has responded to the openings [provided by] the surge maybe better than the political" situation. Central government allocations to the provinces, including Sunni-dominated Anbar, have sharply increased, and the money has arrived on time. "The provinces are spending at twice the rate of 2006," Ries said.
Since September, oil exports have risen by 250,000 to 300,000 barrels a day, and rising oil prices "have been very kind to this country," he said. Electrical production, while still problematic and far below demand, is increasing.
But public services remain spotty, the banking system is moribund, and foreign and domestic investment are minuscule. Investment, particularly in the oil industry, is crucial for sustained economic growth, Ries said. But it remains hostage to a package of hydrocarbon laws that has been locked in debate among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs for nearly a year.
Long-stalled provincial elections await passage of a similarly debated law delineating the powers and responsibilities of the central government and the provinces. Sunnis, who largely boycotted elections in late 2005, are seeking increased political power. The U.S. military is concerned that recent success in reducing Sunni support of insurgent groups will be lost if those demands are not satisfied.
"Just about everywhere I went," Negroponte said, "there's a sense that there ought to be provincial elections as soon as possible. Even among high-ranking Shiite government officials that I spoke to. . . . Our difficulty is that we're impatient. We say, 'Why can't they do this right away?' "
Negroponte said that he has "no quarrel" with the military's anxiety but that he is coming away from his visit confident that the Iraqis "realize that now steps have to be taken to consolidate this."
"The peace is fragile," he said, "and the reduction in violence has been too short-lived to be confident, to be certain, that this quiet situation will continue for an indefinite period of time. So this is the time to move."