Crocker Disappointed With Progress

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker hasn't yet written the report to Congress he is supposed to give, along with General David Petraeus, in mid-September on the state of Iraq. Things change so quickly here, he said, that "Lord knows" what the landscape will look like by then. But he acknowledged that, as of now, the work on the political "benchmarks" that American leaders demand of Baghdad "has been extremely disappointing, frustrating to all concerned, to us, to Iraqis to the Iraqi leadership itself." The assessment came with the usual explanations Crocker has stated in the past that the problems facing Iraqi leaders are excruciatingly complicated and difficult and that the U.S. continues to support Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But he also repeats his warning that the support is "not a blank check."

In the marble-lined palace housing most of the U.S. Embassy staff on Tuesday, around a table with the coffee, bottled water and cookies offered at these briefings, it was unclear exactly why Crocker wanted to hold the briefing, which was scheduled a few days ago. He gave no opening statement before throwing it open to questions that he answered in characteristic modesty--noting when he had doubts or didn't have answers. He likely wants to downplay the emphasis and expectations around the September report. Crocker said that even if the Iraqi government had tackled all the benchmark issues, the country could still be headed in the wrong direction. And even if it tackles none of them, but leaders are talking, bonding and building their capacity for peaceful politics, Iraq could be on the right track.

Crocker, five months into his job here, pointed to the items you'll probably hear repeated in September as glimmers of hope--but each had a counterpoint the ambassador was also willing to point out. Sunni tribes in western Iraq have turned against al Qaeda and parallel steps are seen in other Sunni areas. But he said that goes on separately from the Sunni-Shiite reconciliation that is so key and lacking in resolving the country's violence. Sectarian violence in Baghdad, he claimed, has dropped since the American troop build-up started in February--though Iraqis in some neighborhoods have reason to dispute that. But he allowed that Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi militia was still active and that southern Iraq is seeing "mafia-type" violence among Shiites themselves.

Crocker said Iraq's top political leaders are meeting face-to-face daily for hours on end to try to resolve their disputes. But in a comment that I thought spoke to the veteran diplomat's awareness of the pitfalls facing people in his job, Crocker said he might be finding "silver linings where you shouldn't."

He wouldn't directly address the comments made by Sen. Carl Levin, who said that if there is not political progress soon the Iraqi parliament should vote Maliki out of office. While saying Maliki is genuinely trying to move his country forward and is as frustrated as anyone else by the political and government chaos, he said, "In a parliamentary system, no government is forever."

For those tallying the growing list of U.S. allegations of Iranian meddling in Iraq, Crocker almost hinted that the Islamic Republic might have been behind the recent assassinations of southern Iraqi governors. He said he did not have any evidence, but it couldn't be ruled out as part of a "Hezbollization" strategy in Iraq's Shiite heartland. That could be a word we hear again in the September report, as Crocker warns of the dangers if America quits Iraq. And for anyone who remembers the "Year of the Police," in 2006, in which U.S. military officials repeatedly touted the progress of the Iraqi force, Crocker stated what most Iraqis have long known to the contrary. He said it might take years to reverse the fear and mistrust of the Shiite dominated police, rife with corruption and militia infiltration, and referred to the "fairly awful experiment" of building a national, rather than locally based, police force.