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US official sees some progress on Iraq benchmarks

BAGHDAD,  (Reuters) - Iraq's government, criticised by Washington for its slow progress on three key political benchmarks, could pass two of the laws by the end of July, a U.S. embassy official said on Monday.


Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, seen by analysts as weak and divided, to pass the laws before parliament rises for summer or to forgo the recess in order to work on the legislation.


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Maliki at the weekend that Washington is disappointed with progress so far in passing measure it views as crucial to tying disaffected Sunni Arabs more closely to the political process.


But the U.S. embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said advances had been made on the hydrocarbon laws that will determine control of Iraq's rich oil fields and how to distribute revenue from them between the provinces and central government.


Enough progress had also been made to call provincial elections, with a likely date either at the end of this year or early next year, although more work needed to be done on a complete bill detailing the powers of provincial governments.


"We have some degree of optimism that some of these benchmarks can be reached," said the embassy official.


But progress on the third key piece of legislation, a law that would allow former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to hold public office, was "very, very slow".


"It still must be done," she said.


U.S. President George W. Bush is under pressure from Congress to show progress in the unpopular Iraq war or start setting timetables for bringing U.S. troops home.




The bills are aimed at promoting national reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam Hussein and who now form the backbone of Iraq's insurgency.


At the same time, the U.S. military has poured 28,000 extra troops into Baghdad and other areas in a last-ditch attempt to avert sectarian civil war and to give Maliki's government breathing space to reach the political targets.


Washington in turn has ramped up the pressure on Maliki by sending three senior officials to Baghdad in the past week -- Gates, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Admiral William Fallon, the top U.S. military leader in the Middle East.


Maliki appeared to bristle at the visible application of pressure when, in an interview with Newsweek magazine on Friday, he described timetables as "harmful".


"The decisions are tough but they're not impossible and they ultimately will help Iraq. It's not as if we're asking any element of this coalition to take a suicide pill here," the embassy official said.


Negotiations described as intense had taken place over the past few weeks on the hydrocarbon laws, she said. Final drafts on it and the provincial election were expected before parliament this month, with votes on both likely in July.


The official said the hydrocarbon laws were crucial politically and economically.


"I have never been able to overestimate the significance of these two laws for Iraq, so getting them right and getting them supported by a broad consensus of Iraqis will be a platinum-level sign that these guys can in fact make decisions."

US official sees some progress on Iraq benchmarks -  Source

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