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The year of transition in Iraq

By Maria Cantwell
Special to The Times

We must make this a year of transition for Iraq and for American involvement in that country. By selecting a speaker and prime minister-designate, the Iraqis have achieved an important benchmark. I urge them to continue working in the days ahead to support a government of national unity.

Much work must still be done. Political progress and improved security are key to stability in Iraq. News reports that the U.S. military is considering bringing as many as 30,000 U.S. troops home by the end of the year are very encouraging.

At the White House last Thursday, I made it clear that as Congress considers a $106.5 billion emergency supplemental spending bill, the Bush administration must ensure that the new Iraqi government has the international support to succeed and that Iraqi security forces can take over security. In the past, President Bush has not provided all the leadership necessary to build international support for stabilizing Iraq and getting the Iraqi troops trained.

Last December, I personally witnessed the Iraqi elections, when nearly 10 million Iraqis voted in a successful election; another critical benchmark was met. But in the four-plus months since, Iraq has faced serious challenges. Sectarian violence has plagued Iraq and threatened to turn into civil war. Now, the prime minister must get key Cabinet ministers in place who are capable of helping to lead the country by stopping the militias and sectarian violence.

The formation of the Iraqi government offers a new chance to succeed. But we need to set clear objectives and hold President Bush, Congress, U.S. military leaders and the Iraqis accountable for meeting them.

First, we must make sure that the new Iraqi government succeeds. The U.S. cannot allow the political process in Iraq to drift, because a functioning, inclusive government is a prerequisite to any progress in Iraq.

Once that government is formed, it should convene an international conference with its neighbors, the Arab League and the United Nations to ensure regional peace and greater strength through common purpose. Meanwhile, the president must call on world leaders to meet their commitments to the new Iraqi government so that it can improve the everyday lives of the Iraqi people.

Second, we must ensure that Iraqis assume control of their own security. At present, only approximately 96,000 Iraqi security forces (both military and police) are fully independent and in a lead role, even though 250,000 are now trained and equipped. While that is a significant increase over the past year, the number of fully independent Iraqi troops and police is far from sufficient. Without more support for training Iraqi security forces, the sectarian militias grow stronger every day.

The president should press NATO and our European allies to become more involved in training both within and outside Iraq. He should ask countries like Germany, which is already helping, to do more.

The U.S. military, NATO and our allies must all devote substantially more effort to selecting and training Iraqi officers, to integrating Iraqi security units, and to rebuilding Iraqi military and police forces. Our overarching goal must be to help Iraqis protect their civilian population and the country's economic infrastructure. The president must convince the neighboring countries that they have a major stake in that outcome.

Third, guarding the critical oil and electric infrastructure is essential to establishing the legitimacy of any Iraqi government. In 2003, the Bush administration told Congress that Iraq oil revenue would finance that country's reconstruction "relatively soon." Yet three years later, Iraqi oil production has dropped by 40 percent, while we have spent more than $225 billion in Iraq.

An inclusive government that can function independently and the development of adequate Iraqi security forces are now both key to getting energy infrastructure rebuilt and up and running for the Iraqi people. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike must have faith in their own new government's ability to provide basic services at all levels and to all regions.

The president also needs to recognize that the U.S. cannot and should not rebuild Iraq alone. We can and should enlist international cooperation in that effort. Getting the rest of the world more involved in Iraqi reconstruction may cost Halliburton and others some contracts, but it will benefit Iraq while saving American taxpayers billions.

At the Madrid International Donors' Conference for Iraqi Reconstruction in October 2003, other countries pledged more than $13.5 billion in assistance for the rebuilding of Iraq. However, as of April 2006, these foreign donors have disbursed only about $3 billion of those funds. The president must make sure that the international community follows through on its promises.

President Bush must act with urgency. He must provide the leadership necessary to make sure that 2006 is the year that the new Iraqi government succeeds and our troops can begin to come home. We must work harder to get that done and we must also develop a long-term strategy to curb our nation's dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is a member of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

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