Khalilzad testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that his initial efforts would focus on achieving broad-based support for the draft constitution, due to be finished on 15 August.
“I will reach out to all Iraqis to help them develop a common and unifying vision, a national compact for their nation’s political future. A common understanding among all Iraqi groups should be reflected in an enlightened and sound constitution that’s developed through an inclusive process,” Khalilzad said.
If approved, as expected, by the committee and full Senate, Khalilzad would take over what Senator Richard Lugar called one of the “most consequential ambassadorships” in U.S. history. After drafting the constitution, the government is scheduled to vote on it in a referendum on 15 October. It is due to hold national elections to choose a permanent government by 15 December.
At the moment, there are difficult negotiations on the division of power among leading Iraqi constituencies. In addition, the fledgling Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition forces face an intense insurgency campaign that in May alone killed an estimated 700 Iraqis.
Khalilzad made clear he intended to use his full authority in areas ranging from improving training of Iraqi security forces to intensifying U.S. public diplomacy. He also pledged to be a visible presence outside the fortified zone in Baghdad where most international support personnel are based.
“I intend to be active in reaching out to local government officials. I don’t intend to be a prisoner in the Green Zone. I’ll be out there talking to people. That was my style in Afghanistan as well,” Khalilzad said.
The United States and the administration of President George W. Bush have struggled to overcome the impression within Iraq and the region of being an occupying power intent on dominating the country.
Khalilzad, an Arabic speaker long familiar with Iraq, said he would step up contacts with normal Iraqis. He also said he would press neighboring Arab states to send permanent ambassadors to Iraq and become what he called “a more positive presence.”
He said he would work to counter the efforts of states whose territory is used by foreign-based insurgents to travel to Iraq or who he said “are seeking to dominate parts of Iraq.” When asked about Iran, he noted that Washington and Iran do not have bilateral relations but said there were other channels for communicating with Tehran.
Khalilzad said Washington is only interested in building a democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors.
“I know from President Bush, I know from other senior officials, that there is no U.S. plan for permanent military bases in Iraq or plans for usurping Iraqi resources,” Khalilzad said.
The top-ranking opposition Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, praised Khalilzad but said he faced a nearly impossible timetable to meet in the short term. He also cited concerns over problems between Kurds and Arabs in the northern city of Kirkuk.
“You still have the problem of the legitimacy of the Sunnis being engaged in the process. We haven’t said anything about what’s going to blow up Kirkuk. People think we’ve gotten over the hard part. We’re just getting to the hard part,” Biden said.
Before his role as ambassador to Afghanistan, Khalilzad served the U.S. State and Defense departments in various capacities as well as with the National Security Council.
His nomination is expected to go to the full Senate within two weeks.