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BAGHDAD — As a diplomat who served in Beirut, Lebanon, during the 1983 bombings of the embassy and U.S. Marine barracks, and as the man who opened the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in 2002 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for the past three years, Ryan Crocker said he knew a thing or two about the nature of al-Qaida and suicide bombings.

Now, as a string of deadly car bomb attacks throughout the capital threatens to derail the two-month-old Baghdad security plan, Crocker, ambassador to Iraq, told reporters that Baghdad and Iraq’s ultimate security rested heavily on three factors: the ability of Iraqis to resist appeals to sectarian warfare; political reconciliation such as the status of former Baath Party members, and the willingness of Iraq’s neighbors to promote stability.

In his first news conference since moving into the U.S. Embassy here in early March, Crocker told reporters that he knew well what dangers Iraq faced in the form of al-Qaida militants and divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. He said the coming months would be critical.

“The road is going to be a tough one,” Crocker said. “I don’t begin my tour here with any illusions. But I feel success is possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here.”

Crocker said the string of recent car bombs was an attempt by al-Qaida in Iraq to reignite a bloody cycle of revenge killings between Shiites and Sunnis. Such sectarian violence has dropped significantly during the start of the new security plan, but suicide and car bombings have killed hundreds in the past two weeks.

“The most corrosive and the most critical aspect of conflict in Iraq has been the sectarian dimension,” Crocker said. “That poses the greatest threat to Iraq’s future.”

Crocker hopes the security plan will dampen violence to the degree that Iraqi officials are able to progress in key areas.

“I think that the security plan can buy time,” Crocker said. “But it can only buy time for what ultimately must be a set of political understandings among Iraqis.”

The ambassador said that in that time, Iraqi lawmakers needed to pass legislation aimed at healing divisions between the nation’s majority Shiite population and those Sunni Iraqis who enjoyed special status under Saddam Hussein.

Immediately after the U.S. invasion, former members of Saddam’s Baath party were thrown out of the government and the military. Now, however, proposed legislation seeks to reintegrate these former Baathists.

Crocker hopes that Iraqi legislators would postpone their scheduled summer break to reach an agreement on these matters.

“Iraqis, and all of us, need to move away from zero-sum thinking, and that’s extremely difficult,” Crocker said. “Everyone needs to move away from that ‘I win, you lose’ mentality — de-Baathification can be an example of that.”

Crocker, who works closely with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he went on a six-mile run with the general at Camp Victory before the commander left for the United States to report to lawmakers on the progress of the war.

He said Iraq’s ultimate security would also be dependent on its neighbors, and said he was heartened by an upcoming conference of regional ministers at Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, on May 4. “That’s very encouraging in and of itself,” Crocker said.

He hoped the conference also would be attended by representatives of Syria and Iran — nations that U.S. commanders say have helped to stoke unrest in Iraq over the past four years.

“We hope that both Iran and Syria will be there,” Crocker said. “Their presence will present some real opportunities.”


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