- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Iraq’s ambassador to Washington said today that his country has made progress on the political front to match recent security gains from the U.S. military surge, but he acknowledged that the key parts of the reconciliation program remain stalled.

Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie, briefing a small group of reporters at Iraq’s new embassy building, also revealed that teams of U.S. and Iraqi negotiators will start meeting later this month to begin hammering out a new long-term strategic agreement and hope to have the wide-ranging accord concluded by midsummer.

Mr. Sumaida’ie said Baghdad’s efforts to reconcile the country’s warring ethnic and sectarian forces had been overlooked in the focus on recent security gains and a plunge in casualties and attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

There’s a general impression that progress on the security front has not been matched politically, he said. That impression at the very least is exaggerated.

He cited the Iraqi parliament’s recent approval of a law easing sanctions on lower-level members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party as well as new links being established between Sunni and Shi’ite security forces fighting al Qaeda inside Iraq.

There is actually a reconciliation taking place at the grass roots, at the ground level, and now politics has to catch up to that, he said.

He acknowledged that some senior Sunni Iraqi politicians have denounced the new de-Ba’athification law as inadequate and even counterproductive, but said lawmakers agreed to pass the current draft and then work to amend it later.

However, Iraq has failed to make visible progress on another element seen as critical to national unity — an oil law that would divide the country’s vast energy wealth among its competing communities.

The oil law is still in the pipeline, Mr. Sumaida’ie conceded. It is still a work in progress.

The debate has stretched on for months in Iraq’s parliament, and negotiators from the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurdish regional government failed recently to strike a deal in yet another round of talks.

The Kurdish authorities, in defiance of the central government, already have struck exploration deals with foreign energy companies. The ambassador said the world’s energy giants — the only companies capable of making the vast investments needed to rebuild the oil infrastructure — would not commit to Iraq until an acceptable national oil law was in place.

A referendum on the flashpoint city of Kirkuk, already postponed once, also is a subject of fierce debate. The Kurds see the oil-rich city as the capital of a future regional government, but Arabs and other minorities in the ethnically mixed city are strongly opposed to the idea.

Asked if the constitutionally mandated referendum on Kirkuk’s future status would be held this year, the ambassador said, I’m bad at forecasting the future.

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