WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to Iraq has told lawmakers that guarding against "backsliding" on fragile democratic gains will top his agenda if he is confirmed.
Brett McGurk, a leading voice on Iraq policy in the administrations of both Obama and former President George W. Bush, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his "eyes are wide open" to the stresses on the country's political system.
"For the first time in Iraq's modern history, politics is now the primary arena for engagement among all of Iraq's many different sects and ethnicities. That is the good news," McGurk said.
"The bad news is that there are vast differences that still threaten to overwhelm the nascent institutional framework that was established under the Iraqi Constitution. I am deeply concerned about this situation."
McGurk pledged to help cultivate cooperation across party and religious lines to help minimize the impact of "individual personalities."
Enemies In Iraq
Immediate signs that he will face an uphill battle came on March 27, one day after he was nominated, as the U.S. office of Iyad Allawi, Iraq's former prime minister and leader of the secular Al-Iraqiya bloc, said in a letter to senators that the bloc "will not deal" with McGurk due to his "loyalty and bonds with the Islamic Party."
Allawi is a long-standing rival of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who heads the Shi'ite Islamic Al-Dawah Party.
McGurk worked closely with Maliki in negotiating the terms for postwithdrawal relations between Washington and Baghdad.
Ahead of McGurk's testimony, Ahmad al-Mesaree, an Al-Iraqiya politician, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that the bloc's position still stood.
"This ambassador-designate has ties with certain parties in the country," Mesaree said.
"His statements and political positions have not been neutral toward the political factions. That's why Al-Iraqiya has had its reservations."
Other influential lawmakers in the loosely linked bloc, however, have indicated their support for the U.S. ambassador-designate.
Much To Do In Baghdad
In his testimony before Congress, McGurk did not directly address the criticism, but pledged to work with leaders from all sides. He also said he would aim to visit Iraq's Kurdish region weekly.
McGurk added that he would do "everything possible" to ensure that 2013 provincial elections and national elections in 2014 are free, fair, and on time.
The Iraqi Embassy in Washington has not commented on Allawi's letter, but told RFE/RL that "the Iraqi government has no objection or reservation" regarding McGurk.
Qubad Talabani, the U.S. representative of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, told RFE/RL in an e-mail, "We look forward to working [with McGurk]."
McGurk also pledged to help downsize the U.S. presence in Iraq as Baghdad increasingly asserts its sovereignty.
"Quite frankly, our presence in Iraq right now is too large. There's no proportionality, also, between our size and our influence. In fact, we spent a lot of diplomatic capital simply to sustain our presence," he told lawmakers.
"There's a process underway now, as you may know, to cut our presence by 25 percent by next fall. I fully agree with that approach and I think we can do more."
McGurk also said he would work on assisting in developing the country's oil sector, boosting security cooperation, and helping Baghdad resist what he called "undue Iranian influence."
He also vowed to play a mediating role between Iraq and Turkey, press Baghdad on Syria, and assist on the "overlooked" issue of water supply.
Questions On Qualifications
Few in the U.S. Congress deny McGurk's familiarity with Washington's changing wartime policy toward Baghdad.
Under Bush, he served as director for Iraq and then as special assistant to the president and senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was an early proponent of the surge in U.S. troops and was Washington's primary negotiator in agreeing a security framework agreement with Iraq that foresaw the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
He also served as a special adviser to President Barack Obama's National Security Council staff. He has advised the last three U.S. envoys in Iraq.
But during his testimony, a number of senators said there was concern among their colleagues that McGurk has never before been an ambassador.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Baghdad is the largest in the world, with some 16,000 staff and contractors.
Ahead of the hearing, senior Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) told "Foreign Policy" magazine that he had "very significant questions about [McGurk's] qualifications and his positions."
He cited 2011 negotiations in which McGurk and his colleagues failed to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond that year.
"Now he thinks it was a fine idea that we do not have a residual force there. That's not my view," McCain told the U.S. publication.
Ramzy Mardini, an expert on Iraqi politics at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, also noted in an interview that McGurk would be Washington's first new envoy to Iraq since the exit of troops.
"I think there will be extra weight on McGurk as opposed to previous ambassadors just for the fact that he doesn't have a four-star general backing him in Baghdad," Mardini said.
"But I think his years in Iraq will come in handy. He's going to have to certainly heighten the U.S. diplomatic engagement in Iraq in order to make up for the loss of the military hand."
McGurk said his past experience had given him "what it takes to lead in Iraq."
If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee lawmakers vote in his favor, McGurk must then be approved by the full Senate before he can succeed outgoing ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey.