Concern Raised over U.S. Role in Iraqi Constitution

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

hide captionZalmay Khalilzad, right, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an April 2005 photo.

State Department

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is a familiar face to many Iraqis — some say too familiar. As the constitution is being drafted, there are concerns among Iraqis that Khalilzad's omnipresence is a sign of excessive U.S. influence.

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The key players in the talks over Iraq's new constitution include the ambassador from the United States. Zalmay Khalilzad has been one of the most visible outside figures involved in these talks. Question for some is whether his high profile helps or hurts. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Khalilzad has been close to the constitutional negotiations, sometimes engaging directly with the various factions and sometimes shuttling back and forth among them with ideas and proposals. His meetings with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani have been widely shown on Iraqi television to the point that Talabani had to defend himself against charges that he was too closely guided by the Americans. That makes some observers uneasy.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): The profile has been too high, it is clear. And it's really the question of appearances much less than the question of the actual content.

FLINTOFF: Shibley Telhami is a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Prof. TELHAMI: The balance that the US is going to have to try to keep is between influencing the outcome in a positive way and not being the kiss of death for those who are drafting the constitution.

FLINTOFF: Khalilzad told reporters in Baghdad that the US has a lot at stake in the process and that he wasn't going to be shy about taking part.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (US Ambassador to Iraq): We want Iraq to succeed. A lot of American treasure and blood has been spent here. It is no secret about that. You shouldn't be surprised by that, that we want Iraq to succeed.

FLINTOFF: Khalilzad said he's always available to help, but he insisted that the final decision is that of the Iraqis. Observers praised Khalilzad's experience and his personal skills. He grew up in Afghanistan, has studied in the Arab world and is a Muslim. Some say, though, that Khalilzad has been exerting too much public pressure on Iraqi officials with his pronouncements on culturally difficult issues, such as rights for women. Over the weekend, he issued a statement saying that the minority groups could be assured that the US would allow no compromise on issues such as equal rights for women and for ethnic and religious minorities. David Mack is vice president of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. He says that on the issue of women's rights, Khalilzad is saying what we would expect a representative of the US to say but not necessarily what will play well in the Arab world.

Mr. DAVID MACK (Vice President, Middle East Institute): He is in a situation where he has to be effective not only to make a statement about American values but to coax, urge people to move in the direction of those values. And in many times, that is not done the best by publicly putting people on the spot.

FLINTOFF: Mack says the former US-led occupation authority triggered a backlash because it was perceived by Iraqis as being heavy handed, although he calls that a bit unfair, saying that Iraqis failed to deal with some of the nation's immediate problems after the US-led invasion.

Mr. MACK: On the other hand, it has to be our objective to get Iraqis to step up and take charge of their own destiny, not to make it look as if we are coercing them through some kind of public process moving in that direction.

FLINTOFF: Khalilzad told reporters in Baghdad that agreement has already been achieved on many of the most contentious issues facing the framers of Iraq's constitution, including the rights of women, the structure of the government and the role of Islam. He said he'll be there to help with other issues such as the powers accorded to the various regions in the days that remain before the new deadline. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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