U.S. envoy sees Iraq momentum on reconciliation

BAGHDAD – Reconciliation between Iraq’s divided communities is gaining momentum at a national level, especially in parliament where lawmakers are working “intensively”, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said on Thursday.

But Ryan Crocker said he was not about to predict that the dark days of 2006 and early 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war, were over.

“Intense bitterness remains and there are a lot of challenges that are going to have to be carefully … managed to ensure there is no return because to be frank, all of the good things that have been accomplished during this past year could be reversed,” Crocker said in an interview with Reuters.

He said much had been made possible on national reconciliation in the past few months by sharp plunges in violence. Attacks have fallen by 60 percent since last June, when 30,000 additional U.S. troops became fully deployed.

Iraq’s parliament — frequently chastised by U.S. officials and lawmakers last year for inaction — approved a landmark bill this month that allows former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to rejoin the government and the military.

Minority Sunni Arabs dominated the Baath party. Another bill being debated would offer an amnesty to prisoners who have not committed major crimes, also a key demand of the main Sunni Arab bloc which quit the Shi’ite-led government last August.

Lawmakers also are expected to soon approve a bill on provincial powers that would define the relationship between Baghdad and provincial governors.

Asked if he was seeing a certain degree of momentum on national reconciliation, Crocker said: “I do. And with violence down, things previously impossible become possible.”

He said parliament “really had never been so intensively engaged on issues of national legislation as they have been since the beginning of the year”.

But key legislation such as an oil law that would equitably share revenue from Iraq’s vast oil reserves remains stalled. And this week lawmakers refused to ratify the government’s 2008 budget, partly because of disputes over allocations.

Another key benchmark sought by Washington, the holding of provincial elections, had been expected to be held last year but no date has been set.

Crocker said he was “hearing a new tone” on provincial elections, adding all parties wanted to hold them this year, an event he said could be “hugely important” in stabilizing Iraq.

Sunni Arabs are represented in parliament after taking part in national elections in December 2005, but they largely boycotted provincial elections in January 2005 and are under- represented in many areas where they are numerically dominant.

Crocker also urged the government to make sure it delivered basic services to all Iraqis. Many Iraqis now say the lack of jobs and the frequent shortages of electricity and water are their biggest concerns, not security.

“This will be a year in which security gains will have to be protected and consolidated. The focus is going to have to be on things like services, on economic opportunities and job creation,” he said.

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