Bush to Ambassador Khalilzad: "I'll Take Care of Politics"

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During his recent visit to Washington, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad stayed out of the roiling political debate surrounding the U.S. presence in Iraq, and President George Bush assured him that that was exactly what he should do. Bush told Khalilzad not to be concerned about the realities of a contentious midterm election season encroaching on his work keeping the nacent Iraqi political process on track. The President assured him, "I'll take care of politics, you don't need to worry about that."

Khalilzad certainly has plenty to worry about back in Iraq. In his first interview since returning to Baghdad from Washington, Khalilzad told TIME Thursday that these are "critical months in Iraq." During the week there had been heated debates in the Iraqi parliament over how to define and how much autonomy to give to the federal regions of the country, with the Kurds audaciously showing a map of Kurdistan that included the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. The veteran diplomat sees a window of opportunity for the current unity government to resolve some half a dozen divisive issues, ranging from federalism to agreeing on how oil contracts will be issued to setting a firm timeline for disarming the insurgents and militias attached to political parties.

All of this will take time, Khalilzad says. But with more and more neighborhoods across Iraq turning into sectarian battlefields, time is exactly what the country doesn't have. If the political haggling goes on too long, and the faith in the current unity government fades away, admits the ambassador, Iraq "will be in a much more difficult situation." Despite all this, Khalilzad knows that getting the groups to hash out differences in the political arena — instead of on the streets — is the best bet for future stability in Iraq. "These are complicated, difficult issues. We have to give them the time while urging them to do it as quickly as possible."

Despite a series of press reports about Washington's growing impatience with the Nouri al-Maliki government, Khalilzad told TIME he delivered a positive review of his performance when he met with Bush. The ambassador says he gives Maliki "high marks" for his handling a diverse cabinet made up of rival political parties and for reaching out to groups outside the political process and trying to bring them to the table. He described Maliki as a "strong leader" who is doing his best to steer an unruly, inefficient government that has to do everything by near consensus. "He faces a difficult situation," says Khalilzad. "I kind of feel his pain."

One of the principle militias Maliki will have to disarm — Jaish al Medhi — is attached to the Sadr political bloc that put the Prime Minister in power. But Khalilzad doesn't see Maliki shying away from this responsibility. At the moment, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are searching every neighborhood in Baghdad, but have yet to enter the Jaish al Medhi stronghold of Sadr City. The ambassador doesn't think Maliki will make an exception for his political supporter. "The Prime Minister has not said any particular area is exempt," says Khalilzad. "The militias have to go."

Sitting in his office inside Saddam's old Presidential Palace, Khalilzad couldn't seem farther away from the intense hand-wringing of political strategists in Washington over how the deteriorating situation in Iraq is affecting their poll numbers in the U.S. He admits some Iraqi politicians are nervous that the midterm election results could short-circuit the U.S. commitment to Iraq, but he doesn't see a fundamental change in the approach to Iraq, no matter who controls Congress in January. He could envision minor adjustments being made, "but strategically," says Khalilzad, in an unwrinkled blue shirt, "I don't see an alternative that works for our national interest but to do everything we can to make Iraq succeed."