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 Al-Maliki tells aides U.S. benchmark deadline is June 30

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PostSubject: Al-Maliki tells aides U.S. benchmark deadline is June 30   Wed Mar 14, 2007 6:32 am

http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/03/13/africa/ME-GEN-Iraq-Oil.php

BAGHDAD: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fears the Americans will withdraw support for his government effectively ousting him if parliament does not pass a draft oil law by the end of June, close associates of the Iraqi leader told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The legislature has not even taken up the draft measure for a fair distribution of the nation's oil wealth only one of several U.S. benchmarks that are now seen by al-Maliki, a hardline Shiite, as key to continued American support for his troubled government.

Beyond that, the al-Maliki associates told AP, American officials have informed the prime minister they want an Iraqi government in place by year's end that would be acceptable to Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

"They have said it must be secular and inclusive," one al-Maliki associate said.

To that end, al-Maliki made an unannounced visit Tuesday to Ramadi, the Sunni insurgent stronghold, to meet with tribal leaders, the provincial governor and security chiefs in a bid to signal his willingness for reconciliation to end the bitter and bloody sectarian war that has riven Iraq for more than a year.


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For its part, the U.S. military is speaking with great optimism about its efforts to turn Sunnis in volatile Anbar province away from the insurgency and its al-Qaida in Iraq allies.

Compounding al-Maliki's fears about a withdrawal of American support were visits to Saudi Arabia by two key political figures in an admitted bid to win support for a major Iraqi political realignment. Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally and oil supplier.

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, arrived in the Saudi capital Tuesday. Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region, flew in a day earlier. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

"Allawi is there to enlist support for a new political front that rises above sectarian structures now in place," the former prime minister's spokesman Izzat al-Shahbandar told AP.

Barzani spokesman Abdul-Khaleq Zanganah said the two had met in Kurdistan before traveling to Saudi Arabia for talks on forming a "national front to take over for the political bloc now supporting al-Maliki."

It appears certain that the United States was informed about the Allawi and Barzani opening to the Saudis, who are deeply concerned that al-Maliki could become a puppet of Iran, the Shiite theocracy on Iraq's eastern border. Tehran is seen as a threat to stability among the long-standing Sunni regimes throughout most of the Arab world and deeply at odds with the United States over Iran's nuclear program and policy toward Israel.

Washington has been reported to be working more closely with Sunni Arab governments to encourage them to take a greater role in Iraq, particularly in reining in the Sunni insurgency that has killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands more Iraqi Shiites.

Washington was believed to be trying to win support for its mission in Iraq among the country's Arab neighbors by assuring a greater future role for the Sunni minority that ran the country until the U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.

One al-Maliki confidant said the Americans in Baghdad had voiced displeasure with the prime minister's government even though he has managed so far to blunt major resistance from the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia, to the joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation in the capital and its environs. The militia is the military wing of the political organization run by anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political backing secured the premiership for al-Maliki.

"They have said they are frustrated that he has done nothing to oust the Sadrists, that the oil law has not moved forward, that there is no genuine effort on reconciliation and no movement on new regional elections," said the official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Passage of the oil law, which seeks a fair distribution of revenues among all Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups, has become a major issue for the United States, which had initially counted on financing Iraq's post-invasion reconstruction with oil revenues.

But the decrepit oil infrastructure and violence have left the country producing oil at about the same levels as before the war, at best, and those figures are well below production before the first Gulf War which resulted in U.N. sanctions against the Iraqi oil industry.

The major Sunni bloc in parliament along with Allawi loyalists in the Shiite bloc are openly opposed the draft oil measure as drafted. Al-Maliki also has lost the backing of the Shiite Fadila Party, and independent Shiite members are split on the bill.

The al-Maliki associates said U.S. officials, who they would not name, had told the prime minister that President Bush was committed to the current government but that continued White House support depended on positive action on all the benchmarks especially the oil law and sectarian reconciliation by the close of this parliamentary session on June 30.

"Al-Maliki is committed to meeting the deadline because he is convinced he would not survive in power without U.S. support," one of the associates said.

But standing in the way of forward movement is a recalcitrant Cabinet which al-Maliki has promised to reshuffle by the end of this week. So far, however, he is at loggerheads with the political groupings in parliament which are threatening to withdraw their support for the prime minister if he does not allow the blocs to name replacements for Cabinet positions.

The impasse amounts effectively to a threat to bring down the government if it does what the Americans reportedly are telling al-Maliki he must do to win continued U.S. backing.
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