Kerry considers 2006 to be "crunch time" for Iraq's government

U.S. Senator John Kerry, on a visit to Baghdad, said Thursday that 2006 will be "crunch time" for Iraq's new government, which must show it is capable of running an ethnically divided and violence-wracked country. Kerry said that if the yet to be announced government elected in a December 15 vote can bridge deep sectarian divides and put competent officials in its key ministries, significant numbers of U.S. troops will begin to return by the end of the year.

"This is crunch time for everything we've invested and for everything they've invested," Kerry told reporters in Baghdad's Green Zone, adding later: "I'm confident that, providing the government makes the choices that are available to it, provided we continue to leverage that, that we will be in a position to see very significant numbers of forces return over the course of this year."

Kerry spent the day meeting with top Iraqi officials, including President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He had dinner the night before with more Iraqi officials and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

He said the results of the vote were expected to be released on Friday and that the parties elected must form a national unity government that includes representatives of its three main groups, the Shiite Muslims, Kurds and Sunni Arabs. He stressed that the responsibility belonged to the Iraqis themselves and the U.S.-led coalition could only do so much.

"This will not be resolved by our military," Kerry said. "It will be resolved by the Iraqi political process and by their ability to put this democracy, which they've now been given an opportunity to exercise, in place."

Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts and former Democratic presidential candidate, said he believed that if the government can accomplish the task before it, "there will ultimately be no place in Iraq for jihadists," and the insurgency would weaken.

Kerry made clear that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would only happen if Iraq's government functions effectively and Iraqi police and army units are trained properly. Yet he said that in a meeting with Talabani on Wednesday, the president had told him his expectation was that "tens of thousands" of U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, reports the AP.

D.M.