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White House hopeful for Iraq progress

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The Bush administration is optimistic the Iraqi government will take an important step toward political reconciliation by passing at least one major law before the next progress report in March from the top U.S. general and U.S. ambassador in Iraq.

"I think you'll see, particularly over the next 90 days, some of the laws at the national level begin to pass," said Brett McGurk, senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan at the White House.

Mr. McGurk said a law allowing former Ba'ath Party officials to return to government jobs will pass, and another law that would shift power away from the central government and toward provincial councils may as well.

"The de-Ba'athification reform law is moving its way through the parliamentary process, which is very complicated," he said. "It's had its second reading. It needs one more. I think we'll see that law pass."

The provincial powers law, Mr. McGurk said, faces some opposition from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and prominent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both men are Shi'ites who control blocs within the Iraqi parliament.

A chief roadblock to national reconciliation is tension between Shi'ites and Sunnis. The more-populous Shi'ites constituted the political minority under former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab whose Ba'ath Party dominated government and often mistreated Shi'ites.

Shi'ites now hold the controlling portion of the central government and have been loath to make concessions to Sunnis.

But a senior administration official predicted Mr. al-Maliki eventually will go along with the majority in the parliament on the provincial powers law, saying, "There is more of a consensus there on this issue than I had expected."

And Sheik al-Sadr and his followers, the official said, are "becoming increasingly irrelevant."

The president's surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq over the past year has produced clear security improvements. Civilian deaths, which hit a high of more than 3,000 in December 2006, were down to a little more than 500 last month.

Because of the dramatic security payoffs, criticism has shifted away from violence and toward the lack of quantifiable progress by Iraq's central government. Skeptics say that despite the security gains, the Iraqis have not capitalized on the "breathing space" created for them.

The Bush administration has conceded that the political situation is not ideal.

Mary Beth Long, the president's nominee for assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said last week that she would give the al-Maliki government a failing grade for its performance so far.

"The national government chaired by Prime Minister Maliki has not performed in an exemplary manner by passing key legislative reform," she told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing.

President Bush gave a more upbeat assessment at his year-end press conference, pointing to informal sharing of oil revenues with provincial governments and progress on the budget. The president also indicated that the de-Ba'athification law might soon pass.

"Are we satisfied with the progress in Baghdad? No. But to say nothing is happening is just simply not the case," he said.

Now, the president's surge has ended, and U.S. troops are beginning to leave Iraq. By March, the U.S. military plans to be at pre-surge strength, with about 130,000 troops on the ground.

At that time, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker will report to Congress on how Iraq is doing in meeting benchmarks.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in September that U.S. troops might draw down to 100,000 by the end of 2008, but has since retracted that number, saying that Gen. Petraeus will decide what happens beyond March.

"We obviously want to sustain the gains that we have already made," Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon press conference last week.

The United States runs the risk of seeing violence re-escalate as U.S. troops move out.

"When the surge ends and we lose the ability to sit on certain areas with extra forces, we could see a significant rebound in violence," said Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst for the State Department, now at the Middle East Institute.

And if no laws are passed by the Iraqi parliament by March, administration officials run the risk of facing a situation similar to last winter and spring, when Congress appeared poised to impose a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

One administration official said that public opinion polls are "irrelevant," but another acknowledged that public opinion on Iraq is the "center of gravity."

"The public opinion of what we need to do in Iraq matters. Not that we look at the polls on this, but the Congress matters. The Congress has to provide funds," the official said.

Despite these risks, the White House is more optimistic about Iraq than at any time in recent memory.

"I am not Pollyannish about Iraq. We have had times in the past where it looked like we were on the right track," Mr. McGurk said. "This does feel different, though."

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