WASHINGTON—Four months after President Bush launched his new Iraq strategy, the U.S. troop buildup there is proceeding apace, but feuding among Iraqi politicians and power brokers threatens to block the political reforms on which the success of the plan depends.
U.S. officials warn that the longer the impasse persists over laws on provincial elections and the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth among Shiite Muslims, Kurds and Sunnis, the greater the risk that the surge of 30,000 more U.S. troops into Baghdad, which is intended to provide a security umbrella for political reforms, will be for naught.
Until the political feuding ends, "we are just maintaining the status quo," said a U.S. military official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
Some U.S. and Iraqi politicians already are predicting that the Iraqi parliament won't pass any key legislation by September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, is supposed to assess the success of the surge.
"To me, the success of the surge is measured by whether it will produce a political settlement," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told McClatchy Newspapers. "There is no evidence that I can see that the surge is producing or will produce a political solution."
Indeed, some U.S. military officials are worried that Iraqi political feuding could demoralize the American troops who are fighting to buy Iraqis time to resolve these key issues.
"It is a huge irritant," the military official said. "What psychological effect does (a stalemate) have on our troops?"
Bush, his top lieutenants and their Republican allies in Congress insist that it's too early to judge the new strategy, which the president dubbed "The New Way Forward" in a Jan. 10 televised address to the nation.
"The job now is to persevere in every area of operations," Vice President Dick Cheney told the crew of the USS John C. Stennis when he visited the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf on Friday.
Yet Bush seemed to concede on Thursday that the national reconciliation plan was in trouble when he announced his readiness to negotiate with Democratic lawmakers on including benchmarks for Iraqi leaders in a war-financing bill.
"I think he has acknowledged implicitly that it takes pressure on the Iraqis," said Levin, who advocates starting an American withdrawal within four months to push the Iraqis to act. "They don't need breathing space, they need pressure."
Cheney's Middle East trip also reflected the administration's urgency. While in Baghdad, he pressed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for progress on the key bills and called for Iraqi lawmakers to cancel plans to take a two-month summer break beginning June 1.
On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told CNN that the parliament would continue to meet in July, and that its summer break "will be condensed into one month or two weeks."
In addition to laws on oil distribution and provincial elections, the administration has pressed Maliki for legislation that would allow tens of thousands of low-ranking members of the late Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party to return to the government jobs they were purged from after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The government has missed multiple self-imposed deadlines for approving the measures.
For the laws to pass, Iraq's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds would have to make major concessions, likely at each group's political peril. So far, none has been willing.
"Each group looks at it as how much power will they gain and how much they will lose," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator who doesn't think the parliament will meet Bush's benchmarks. "Everybody is defending their own section, their own interests. The national interest of Iraq comes second, unfortunately."
For example, the government was supposed to hold elections for provincial councils next month, but it's failed to agree on an election law. The elections are intended to rectify the results of provincial polls held in 2005, which were skewed by a Sunni boycott.
But the political dynamics have shifted. Those who won, such as the Shiite-dominated, Iran-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, could now lose seats in southern Iraq to followers of radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Sunni leaders fear they could lose to popular tribal sheiks, said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiism at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In addition, Nasr said that electing new young leaders wouldn't resolve the immediate problems.
"The idea that elections will produce leaders you want to work with applies if you are working in a peaceful environment," Nasr said. "Unless the insurgents are running for office and come to the polls, it doesn't matter."
Bush's strategy got a boost in February, when al Maliki's cabinet approved a draft oil law to regulate the exploitation of the world's third-largest proven petroleum reserves, which produce 95 percent of the government's revenues.
The draft law is aimed at assuaging Sunni fears that they'll be deprived of oil revenues. Iraq's oil supplies are in the Shiite-dominated south and around the Kurd-controlled northern city of Kirkuk. There are no confirmed reserves in Sunni-dominated western areas.
But the draft law's submission to the legislature has been held up by Kurdish leaders' objections to a Shiite plan that would restore the state-run Iraqi National Oil Company's monopoly on exploration and production, experts said.
Kurdish leaders are demanding that foreign oil companies be allowed into Iraq, and they see the proposal for central government control as eroding their autonomy.
Bush's insistence that the Iraqi government address the purge of low-ranking Baathists has sparked several pieces of draft legislation. But most parties aren't in a rush to change the law and share power with a largely Sunni faction.
A senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said officials in Washington and Baghdad are working hard to resolve the impasse—or least prevent things from getting worse.
"We are trying to make sure a bad situation doesn't deteriorate any further. And that has become an accomplishment," he said.
Baghdad correspondent Leila Fadel contributed to this report.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.