Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Juggler

Robert Worth of the "Times" says our Iraqi Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is a real "flack catcher."

EVER since Iraq's elections in December, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador here, has played the role of a Kissinger-style power broker, shuttling between the country's political factions and urging them to make concessions in the interest of forming a broad-based government.

In a country deeply divided along sectarian lines, that was never an easy task.

Now the violence that followed the bombing of a Shiite shrine on Feb. 22 — and that raised the prospect of open civil war — has made Mr. Khalilzad's task far more urgent, and left him a contentious figure whose credibility as an honest broker has come under attack.

His increasingly difficult position shows how far the ground has shifted in recent weeks.

Both Sunnis and Shiites now publicly accuse him of secretly siding with their opponents. With the possibility of civil war looming, they seem to have gone beyond worrying whose faction will get the next cabinet post; their deepest concern now is whom will the American forces help if unrestrained warfare breaks out.

The Shiite religious parties who dominate Iraq's government have now grown tired of hearing the ambassador tell them that they must share power with Sunni Arab leaders, whom they view as terrorists.


For their part, Iraqi leaders of all varieties acknowledge that Mr. Khalilzad remains essential to efforts to bring the factions together. On Friday, with talks on forming a new government deadlocked, he called for a meeting of the main blocs, to be held outside Iraq.

Most of the leaders also praise his skills as a negotiator. Tall and loose-limbed, he laughs easily, but in large gatherings tends to listen in silence, Iraqi leaders who have spent time with him say. Several have been impressed by his willingness to go to people's homes to talk, rather than sit in the safety of the heavily guarded Green Zone.

Mr. Khalilzad's native language is Dari, which is familiar to many Kurds and Shiites, and he uses it when he meets with them. The mere fact that he is a fellow Muslim opens doors. It is also well known here that he was part of the neoconservative group that pushed for toppling Saddam Hussein — a credential that deepens his credibility as an administration spokesman.

"He has charm, there is no doubt of that," said Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister who is a member of the secular alliance in Iraq's new Parliament. "He makes people feel that he cares."

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