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Ambassador to Iraq nominee sees grim political situation in Iraq

WASHINGTON - President Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to Baghdad painted a grim picture of the political situation in Iraq on Wednesday, noting that "fear, mistrust, and score-settling still dominate political discourse."

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Brett McGurk - a former senior adviser on Iraq to both former president George W. Bush and Obama - said that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, still needs to take more steps toward integrating the minority Sunni Arabs -- who dominated political life during Saddam Hussein's reign -- into government.

"There's the overhang now of a very bitter sectarian war which the Iraqis are still overcoming ... and we need to remind the current government everyday that they need to do what they can to make Sunnis feel part of the process," he said.

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McGurk was selected by Obama in March, but his nomination has drawn at least a measure of opposition from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was critical of the administration's failure to persuade Baghdad to allow some U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011.

McGurk led those talks, which fell apart on Iraq's insistence that U.S. forces would be subject to Iraqi laws. McCain told reporters Tuesday that he had "grave concerns" about McGurk.

He said that he was awaiting the hearing before making a decision about supporting McGurk. McCain, who did not attend the hearing, did not respond to requests for comment after McGurk testified.

The Washington office of the Iraqi National Accord, the most prominent opposition block in Iraq's parliament, wrote Congress shortly after McGurk's nomination in March to oppose him and say he was too close to Shiite politicians.

If confirmed, McGurk will be the sixth U.S. envoy to Baghdad since the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations in 2004. He would be the first postwar ambassador to Iraq who hadn't previously served as the chief diplomat at another post.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members questioned McGurk's experience and noted the costs of the U.S. mission in Baghdad.

The embassy's $4 billion budget for next year is more than that of Idaho when he was governor in 2006-07, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said.

"I will have to say you're going to be challenged, I think, (by) the size and complexity of this operation that confronts you, having never been an ambassador before," Risch said.

McGurk, 39, noted that he has served under all five post-Saddam-era ambassadors and has close relationships with the major players in Iraq's political scene and understands the embassy's tempo.

While violence is down in Iraq, McGurk said al-Qaeda in Iraq remains as potent as it was last year when U.S. troops were still in the country. He said the terrorist group is capable of pulling off an attack every 30 to 40 days, such as the one in Baghdad last week that killed 17.

"The Iraqi government has not been able to degrade al-Qaeda in Iraq," McGurk said. "That's a serious concern that we need to work with them on."

McGurk also expressed support of the State Department's plan to cut the U.S. mission in Iraq, which includes 16,000 personnel, by 25 percent by next fall.

"There is no proportionality also between our size and our influence," McGurk said. "In fact, we spend a lot of diplomatic capital simply to sustain our presence."

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In this series from August, 2010, as the American military presence in Iraq was being reduced, Stars and Stripes looked at the costs of the war through the eyes of Iraqis and Americans and asked: What difference did we really make?