BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has made “extremely disappointing” progress toward reconciling its warring sects, the U.S. ambassador said on Tuesday, just three weeks before he is due to present a pivotal report on Iraq to the U.S. Congress.
In some of the bluntest language used by a U.S. official toward Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s fractured coalition government, ambassador Ryan Crocker also warned that U.S. support for Maliki’s administration was not open-ended.
“Progress on national level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned, to us, to Iraqis, to the Iraqi leadership itself,” Crocker said.
“We do expect results, as do the Iraqi people, and our support is not a blank check,” he told reporters in Baghdad.
The report to Congress by Crocker and the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, due around September 11, is widely seen as a watershed moment that could trigger a change in U.S. policy in Iraq.
Pressure is growing on President George W. Bush to show progress in the unpopular war or start bringing troops home, with benchmarks set by Washington aimed at reconciling majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs seen as a litmus test.
Bush stopped short of harshly criticizing the Iraqi government on Tuesday, saying it was up to the Iraqi people to vote leaders out if their needs were not being met.
“If the government doesn’t ... respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government,” Bush told reporters in Quebec after meeting with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. “That’s up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians.”
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, just back from a visit to Iraq, on Monday urged that Maliki’s government be voted out of power because they have been unable to reach compromises on key policy issues.
Levin, a Democrat, made the criticism in a joint statement with Sen. John Warner, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee who has said Bush’s “surge” strategy of sending thousands more U.S. troops should be given a chance.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France’s RTL Radio in an interview from Baghdad that Europe must play a bigger role in Iraq because “the Americans will not be able to get this country out of difficulty alone.”
Kouchner is the first French minister to visit Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein. France, then under President Jacques Chirac, strongly opposed it and angered Bush by refusing to join his “Coalition of the Willing.”
Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, has since sought to improve ties with Bush, and Kouchner’s visit is seen as a symbolic sign of the new French policy on Iraq.
Kouchner said after three days of talks with Iraq’s leaders, including Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, it was clear there was a lack of trust between the different groups.
“Maybe the trust between the people is more than that,” Kouchner told reporters through an Arabic translator after talks with Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd.
Iraq’s national unity government is paralyzed by infighting, with political blocs representing Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds reluctant to compromise to reach a power-sharing deal.
That paralysis has meant negligible progress toward Washington’s benchmarks, which include a revenue-sharing oil law, setting a date for provincial elections and easing restrictions on former members of Saddam’s Baath party.
U.S. officials are especially frustrated after an extra 30,000 troops were deployed this year in a security crackdown meant to buy Maliki’s government time to reach those targets.
The political crisis is playing out against a backdrop of sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and displaced millions more.
Police said gunmen killed seven members of the same family in the town of Latifiya in the notorious “Triangle of Death,” a Sunni Arab militant stronghold south of Baghdad. Two police sources said three women and a girl were among the dead.
Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Paris and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad