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New ambassador in Iraq faces challenge

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The expected appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Iraq will offer the Bush administration an opportunity to re-establish the United States as a player in Iraqi decision-making after months of declining influence.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have clashed publicly over a growing list of issues, from U.S. military actions to the recent execution of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Al-Maliki aides have said that the prime minister, a Shiite Muslim, thinks that Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim, sides with the Sunnis.

Khalilzad's likely replacement is Ryan Crocker, a longtime foreign service officer and Arabic speaker who has extensive experience in Iraq. He served in Lebanon when American troops became embroiled in that country's civil war two decades ago, and he is now the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

Whether Crocker, who's a Christian, will have any greater influence over al-Maliki is an open question. There are fundamental policy differences between al-Maliki and the Bush administration, including whether Shiite militias or Sunni insurgents are the greatest threat to Iraq's security.

But a new envoy will be crucial to hopes that whatever Iraq policy Bush puts forward will succeed.

The Bush administration announced personnel changes Friday that would put new people in charge of Iraq policy. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, Kahlilzad's predecessor in Iraq, was tapped to become the deputy secretary of state.

White House spokesman Tony Snow confirmed that Bush will name Gen. David Petraeus as the top American commander in Iraq, replacing Gen. George Casey, who'll succeed Gen. Peter Schoomaker as the chief of staff of the Army. Adm. William Fallon will replace retiring Gen. John Abizaid as the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Whether major policy changes will follow the personnel changes remains unclear, however.

Bush is expected to announce a new course next Wednesday amid speculation that it will include a surge of U.S. troops and an increase in civilian advisers to the al-Maliki government and aid for reconstruction efforts. But al-Maliki consistently has pushed for less U.S. military involvement, saying Iraqi officials could solve the country's security problems if they weren't hampered by the United States. Al-Maliki aides say he stuck to that position during a lengthy teleconference Thursday with Bush.

Crocker has a penchant for tough talk, according to a State Department colleague, a trait he'll probably need to deal with Iraq's feuding politicians.

He's "a diplomat that has a lot of polish," said the colleague, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the colleague isn't authorized to discuss the matter, but is "most notable for his ability to be undiplomatic sometimes."

Crocker has a history of accepting difficult overseas jobs. In addition to serving in Lebanon and Pakistan, he was ambassador to Syria when then-President Clinton launched air attacks on neighboring Iraq. Crowds of angry Syrians overran the U.S. Embassy and Crocker's residence, and Marines had to rescue his wife.

Retired U.S. diplomat David Mack, who served with Crocker in Baghdad in the 1970s and is an admirer, predicted that Crocker will adopt a more behind-the-scenes style. "I don't think Ryan is going to be anything as high-profile or in-your-face as Zal is. ... He's not much into public diplomacy."

Khalilzad's high profile here may have helped earn him the hostility of the Iraqi government, which has been working to show its independence from the United States. Khalilzad has been ubiquitous at key moments in Iraq's recent history, even taking a seat in parliament at its first meeting.

He also angered Shiite politicians by pressing for more power for Sunnis than Shiites felt that Sunnis had won at the ballot box.

Crocker "must answer: Whose side are we on?" said a State Department official in Washington, who asked not to be identified because the official isn't authorized to speak to the news media. "It is going to be extremely difficult."

Tensions between al-Maliki and the U.S. Embassy have been apparent several times during the last few months, most recently when Iraqi officials decided to hang Saddam.

American officials pleaded with the government to wait until after the Muslim holy period of Eid al-Adha and not to rush its decisions. Iraqi officials rejected that and plowed through a hastily planned execution.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Khalilzad wasn't in Iraq at the time. Aides say that in recent months, he increasingly has been absent.

He and al-Maliki disagreed publicly in October over whether the government had agreed, as Khalilzad had announced at a news conference, on a timetable for resolving key issues, such as purging members of Saddam's Baath Party from the government and military, addressing sectarianism and encouraging national reconciliation. Al-Maliki held a news conference the next day to say there'd been no such agreement and that he wasn't America's man in Iraq.

Later that week, he granted a wide-ranging interview to the Reuters news service in which he blamed the United States for the chaos in Iraq, disagreed with Khalilzad's assertion that Shiite militias were the greatest threat to Iraqi security and called for more authority over Iraq's security forces.

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Khalilzad arrived with great fanfare in the summer of 2005, billed as a charming Afghan-American who was Muslim, spoke Arabic and had a sense of Iraqi politics and idiosyncrasies.

Fresh from his previous post as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, he practiced a sort of shuttle diplomacy, wheeling among Iraqi politicians of rival sects on the National Assembly floor to break stalemates. He pushed Sunnis and Shiites to agree on a constitution in time for an October 2005 referendum and for an election that December for Iraq's first permanent elected government in nearly 100 years. He was the chief negotiator between Iraq's rival factions as they bartered over key positions in the government, including the defense and interior ministers.

In the weeks after the election, Iraqi officials said the government couldn't survive without the ambassador.

But Khalilzad's insistence that the government give Sunnis a bigger say despite the election results irritated the Shiite government. When attacks against Shiites didn't stop, as Khalilzad had said they would if the Sunnis felt less disenfranchised, the Shiites were incensed. Many said they had been forced to make concessions to known insurgents but got little for their efforts.

Khalilzad probably had few options. Both sides were committed to arms, not compromise. After a revered Shiite shrine was bombed Feb. 22 in the Sunni city of Samarra, the ambassador warned that Iraq could plunge toward civil war. Some argue that during his tenure, it did.

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(Youssef reported from Baghdad, Strobel from Washington. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070105 Khalilzad bio and 20070105 USIRAQ changes

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