Washington's point man in Iraq believes a significant pullout of U.S. troops this year remains a possibility, despite a recent upsurge in sectaran violence that has left the country teetering on the edge of a civil war. However, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad says a pullout is predicated on Iraq's leaders being able to set aside their bickering and get the long-stalled political process back on track.
To give them a push, Khalilzad is advocating a new initiative based on an old-fashioned solution to family squabbles: lock them up in a room and don't let them out until they have sorted out their differences. The ambassador told TIME that over the next few days, he hopes to persuade Iraq's main political players to participate in a conference possibly away from Baghdad, even away from Iraq where they would be coaxed into arriving at a common political agenda to be administered by an all-party coalition government.
Such a government is seen as a fundamental requisite for U.S. plans to draw down its 130,000-strong force in Iraq. For many political observers, hopes of a national-unity government have been dashed by the violence of the past two weeks, sparked by the destruction of a major Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. But Khalilzad told TIME he remains optimistic: "I believe that if we get when we get the national-unity government, when we have ministries that are run by competent ministers, and as we get into the next phase of our Sunni outreach ... I see a set of circumstances, frankly, that would allow for a significant withdrawal of our forces."
Khalilzad, posted to Baghdad last June after an ambassadorial stint in Afghanistan, concedes that the post-Samarra violence has complicated the Iraqi political landscape. But he dismissed predictions that the violence would continue. "I'm not projecting that we'll have more of the same," he said.
Khalilzad says the main political hurdle at the moment is the deep division over who should be Iraq's next prime minister. The Shi'ite alliance that won the largest block of seats in the Dec 15 general election has nominated Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is prime minister of the interim government. But Kurdish, Sunni and secular parties have in recent days mounted a strong challenge, demanding that Jaafari's nomination be withdrawn. They blame Jaafari for the interim government's many failings, including its failure to act quickly and decisively to prevent the sectarian conflagration that followed the Samarra blast.
The Shi'ites don't have a majority in the parliament, and in recent days, fissures have appeared in the Shi'ite alliance. But Jaafari is backed by the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, an unpredictable political maverick with an armed militia, known as the Mahdi Army, that is widely blamed for much of the recent sectarian violence.
Political wrangling has dragged out the formation of a new government; the parliament is scheduled to meet for the first time on Sunday, nearly three months after the general election.
Khalilzad says that once the prime ministership is decided and legislators are sworn in, he will invite leaders of the main parties to a conference, "perhaps here or somewhere else," to help speed up negotiations on a wide range of contentious issues. He and the leaders will "work together day and night until we've finished the job," he says.
This political offsite will be similar to the U.S.-sponsored London conference in December 2002, which brought together the then-exiled leaders of Iraq's opposition parties for four days of grueling negotiations that resulted in the acceptance of a broad political agenda for a post-Saddam Iraq. But agreements on some fundamental concepts like the creation of a federal state with strong regional governments, rather than a powerful central government unraveled when the opposition groups gained political power after the fall of Saddam.
Khalilzad was a U.S. representative at the conference, and he believes the roll-up-your-sleeves spirit of that meeting is key to mending broken political fences. "In London,†we stayed together, and sometimes meetings went on till 3 or 4 in the morning," he says. "That may be what's required to get this job done at a faster pace than now."
It is unclear how Shi'ite and Sunni parties will respond to the ambassador's invitation, but the Kurds Washington's oldest allies in Iraq are likely to be amenable. "All the doors to a political solution are closed," an influential Kurdish leader told TIME. "This may just be the drastic step necessary to open them up again."
TIME's Aparisim Ghosh spoke at length this week with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad. Listen to audio clips from the interview: