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In Iraq, US still carries big stick

In a delicate balancing act, the US applies political pressure even while encouraging sovereignty.

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Much of the money for rebuilding Iraq has already been spent, and Iraqi soldiers are gradually taking over for their American counterparts. So what can the United States still use as leverage? It may be that the strongest influence is the simple fear of what would happen if the US up and left.

"Most of Iraq's leaders recognize that if the US were to pull out precipitously, things could get much worse," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the US Institute of Peace who has spent considerable time with Iraq's principal political factions. "All the talk about the US getting out, an exit strategy and so forth, has them worried. It's having an impact."

Yet even as the US shows signs of growing increasingly impatient with Iraqi leaders over their inability to name a new government, that doesn't mean the US wants to look as if it is determining Iraq's future. The result is a delicate balancing act: It's applying pressure for political action even while encouraging a sovereign Iraq that appears to stand on its own two feet.

For weeks, the US has left its behind-closed-doors arm-twisting to its ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, with the aim of seeing a national unity government named that is acceptable to the major political factions and population groups. But with alarm growing that what the US calls a "power vacuum" is feeding sectarian violence, the pressure has become more public - and from higher up.

On Tuesday, President Bush said, "It's time for the elected leaders to stand up and do their job." The remark came one day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice concluded a visit to Baghdad accompanied by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The two diplomats gave no public indications of their preference for prime minister, the keystone in the construction of Iraq's first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But the US has made little effort to squelch speculation that it wishes to see Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari give up his battle to retain his post.

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