New York Times
May 10, 2007
By John F. Burns
BAGHDAD, May 9 — After a day of talks here with Iraq’s fractious political leaders, Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday that he detected “a greater sense of urgency” among them in tackling a list of divisive issues that the Bush administration sees as the key to any sustained progress against the country’s insurgent and militia groups.
Keeping up the Bush administration’s drumbeat of pressure on Iraqi leaders, Mr. Cheney began his tour of the Middle East with a previously unannounced visit to Baghdad, his second since the invasion. In 12 hours of meetings with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other leaders, he urged the Iraqis to act decisively on issues that have riven Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and told them that political progress in Baghdad is essential if American military support is to be sustained in the face of strong Congressional and popular opposition in the United States.
At a news conference after the meetings, Mr. Cheney acknowledged that the Iraqis had given him no specific time commitments for legislative action on issues the Americans have identified as crucial. They include an oil law that assures a fair distribution of revenue to the different population groups, constitutional reforms that reassure the Sunni minority and a revised de-Baathification law that opens the way to a return to government jobs by thousands of midlevel officials from Saddam Hussein’s era.
But Mr. Cheney said his talks with Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, and with leaders of Sunni and Kurdish factions, had left him with a sense that the Iraqis understood the importance of resolving differences that have threatened to collapse the government. Just this week, the largest Sunni Arab bloc threatened to pull out of Parliament in frustration at what it described as Shiite disregard for their interests, but backed off after a personal intervention by President Bush.
“I do believe that there is a greater sense of urgency now than I’d seen previously,” Mr. Cheney told reporters after separate meetings with Mr. Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, and with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni leader who had led the threatened pullout. In other meetings, he talked with the Iraqi ministers of oil, finance, interior and foreign affairs; with Lt. Gen. Aboud al-Maliki, the Iraqi military commander in Baghdad; and with the leader of a powerful Shiite religious bloc who is both a political ally and rival of Mr. Maliki’s, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
Mr. Cheney was accompanied at the meetings by the two top American officials in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus. Mr. Cheney’s visit was part of a pattern of sustained, high-level American engagement with the Iraqi leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates visited Baghdad, with a message similar to the one carried here on Wednesday by Mr. Cheney.
Last week, the message was pressed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she met with Mr. Maliki at an international conference on Iraq in Egypt. Senior administration officials in Washington have said the talks have been aimed at pushing the Iraqis to act, but also at reassuring them of American support in the face of Congressional pressures for a troop withdrawal.
The pressures Mr. Maliki faces in his own constituency of Shiites were underscored when crowds of several hundred protesters gathered in the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf to protest against Mr. Cheney’s visit.
The protesters were loyalists of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr; a message from him that was read to the crowds gave vent to the virulent anti-Americanism that is his hallmark. Calling Mr. Cheney “one of the world’s most evil infidels,” the statement said the vice president had come “for no purpose other than killing and destruction.” The crowd responded with cries of “No, no, America!” and “Out, out, occupiers!”
Mr. Cheney was cautious in his appraisal of the Iraqi response to his appeals for movement on issues that have virtually paralyzed the Maliki government in the year it has been in office. During his news conference, he veered away from a question about so-called benchmarks that would tie future military and financial support to Iraqi progress on the disputed issues, saying the administration would continue to oppose any Congressionally mandated restraints on President Bush’s “prerogatives as commander in chief” or on the “flexibility” of American commanders.
But it seemed clear that he had warned the Iraqi leaders of the threat posed by the mood in Congress.
“I did make it clear that we believe it’s very important to move on the issues before us in a timely fashion and that any undue delay would be difficult to explain, and that we hoped they would approach these issues with all deliberate dispatch, if I can put it in those terms,” he said. “I think they’re somewhat sympathetic to our concerns.”
The vice president was similarly tentative about the effects of the increase in American and Iraqi troops in Baghdad that began two months ago and that will continue as two additional brigades of American troops, on top of the three already deployed, arrive in the next two months. He said the Iraqi leaders he had met here had told him that “the situation has gotten better” in the capital and had cited a sharp reduction in sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite groups.
As well, he said, the Iraqis had cited “the really dramatic shift” in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, where Sunni tribal leaders have forged an alliance with the Americans since the turn of the year that has sharply reduced the levels of violence there. But Mr. Cheney advised caution. “The impression I got talking with them,” he said, referring to the Iraqi leaders, “is that they do believe we are making progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
In remarks to reporters after his meeting with Mr. Cheney, Prime Minister Maliki appeared reluctant to offer any public assurance that the Iraqi political process would be accelerated. Always enigmatic, Mr. Maliki has pledged before to speed up the reconciliation process, only to back away almost immediately, leaving American officials unsure whether he has been deterred by fear of criticism from hard-line Shiites or by more Machiavellian motives.
“We talked about the challenges we are facing in our own political process,” Mr. Maliki said, with Mr. Cheney standing beside him. He then embarked on a brief discourse about all that Iraq had achieved in the past four years, as though to remind the Americans that Iraq’s was a sovereign government, for all the help it has received from the United States. “We have achieved our own Constitution, we have achieved freedom, we have achieved democracy, and we have achieved sovereignty throughout our country,” he said.
In a reminder of the hazards of life in Baghdad, reporters accompanying Mr. Cheney said a late-afternoon explosion somewhere in the distance rattled windows in the building in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone where Mr. Cheney met with many of the Iraqi leaders. The blast prompted American security officials to move the reporters down two floors into a basement “attack shelter” for a few minutes before the all-clear was sounded. A pool report said it was not clear whether Mr. Cheney — who was uninjured when a suicide bomber attacked an American military base in Afghanistan where he was visiting earlier this year — had also been moved to a shelter.
Mr. Cheney’s visit was accompanied by continuing violence across Iraq. A truck loaded with explosives detonated in front of offices of the Kurdish regional government in the northern city of Erbil, killing at least 19 people and wounding more than 70. It was one of the most violent attacks in the city in the course of the war, and prompted a message of condolence from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, who described the attack as “heinous” and vowed continued American support in the quest for peace in Iraq.
Ten people were killed when gunmen opened fire on their minibus near Latifiya, in a troubled area on the southern perimeter of Baghdad that has been the scene of intense sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. And the American command said an American soldier had been killed by gunfire on Tuesday in Diyala Province, a region north and east of north of Baghdad that has become the bloodiest focal point of the war in recent months.
A statement by the command also acknowledged that five Iraqi civilians, including two children, were killed on Tuesday when an Apache attack helicopter fired on what the command said were two men planting a roadside bomb near Mandali, a town in Diyala. The chief spokesman for the command, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, said that an investigation had shown that there was no truth to claims by some Iraqis in the area that the missile fired by the Apache had hit a school. Reporting was contributed by Ali Adeeb, Diana Oliva Cave, Ahmad Fadam and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Erbil, Najaf and Karbala.