(Ceerwan Aziz ~ Pool)
"The security surge has delivered significant results, now progress on political reconciliation including key national legislation as well as economic advances is needed to consolidate the gains made thus far," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said. "If progress is not made on these fronts we risk falling back to the more violent patterns of the past."
The U.S. military has said the levels of violence in Iraq have fallen to lows not seen since January 2006, just before the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra set off reprisal killings that have left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and pushed the country to the brink of civil war. But top American commanders have warned that Sunni and Shiite extremists still pose a serious threat.
Political progress has been lagging, with lawmakers clashing over Kurdish oil deals with foreign companies and engaging in heated exchanges over a draft bill that would allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to their government jobs. Both measures are among the 18 benchmarks set by President Bush's administration to encourage reconciliation.
Negroponte, who was wrapping up a six-day tour through half of Iraq's 18 provinces, said Iraqi politicians needed to follow up quickly on "significant" and "very palpable" achievements in security.
"It's one thing to have brought the violence under some semblance of control but it's another now to follow up with the necessary reconstruction and stabilization projects," he said at a news conference in the U.S.-protected Green Zone in central Baghdad.
The U.S. military's second-in-command in Iraq also stressed the need for political progress and an improvement in public services.
"I think they're starting to take the right steps," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno told CNN in an interview. "They have not accomplished what we would like them to do. They're probably not doing it as quickly as we'd like. But they are starting to take steps."
American and Iraqi officials plan to begin talks on a new agreement to replace the current U.N.-mandated multinational forces mission, which the Iraqis don't wanted extended beyond the middle of next year.