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Originally published Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Senators to Iraq: Time to shape up

A midwestern congressional delegation that included Democratic rising star Sen. Barack Obama had a blunt assessment Saturday for Iraq's...

Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A Midwestern congressional delegation that included Democratic rising star Sen. Barack Obama had a blunt assessment Saturday for Iraq's political leaders: Shape up, or America will ship out.

The continued U.S. commitment to Iraq is becoming a tougher sell back home, said the delegation of four legislators, and unless Iraqis can start showing visible signs of progress by creating a broad-based government and security forces inclusive of all of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, Americans will lose patience, they said.

"It's going to be hard to convince American taxpayers to pour water into a leaky bucket," said Obama, the first-term Illinois senator, speaking briefly with reporters inside Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, now used as an annex for the U.S. Embassy. Obama, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., arrived in Iraq on Saturday on a whirlwind trip that included meetings with American intelligence and reconstruction specialists and Iraqi election officials in the capital's U.S.-protected Green Zone as well as visits today to troops in outlying provinces. They were not scheduled to speak directly to Iraqi political leaders.

Echoing similar exhortations put to Iraqi leaders in recent days by Bush administration officials, the legislators said their constituents were proud of America's accomplishments in Iraq but loathe to commit further money and troops if the Iraqi government elected last month did not draw in all the country's ethnic and political factions.

"We are willing to continue to help them as long as they are willing to move forward toward a national unity government," said Bond, known as a strong backer of the U.S. military. "We are not here to participate in something that is dominated by one particular party or one particular sect."

It's not clear how much influence U.S. legislators have on Iraq strategies. President Bush generally consults with only a small group of U.S. military and political advisers in devising foreign and domestic policy. But with 2006 midterm elections on the horizon and American opinion polls showing declining enthusiasm for America's involvement in Iraq, pressure has been building on legislators and the president to demonstrate progress or an exit plan.

Bayh outlined half a dozen milestones he and his colleagues said they'd like to see Iraqis achieve over the next six months in order to be able to convince voters back home that continued military and economic commitment to Iraq is worthwhile.

They include the quick formation of a government, signs of economic progress, Sunni Arab acceptance of the political process, a civil service that reflects Iraq's different ethnic and religious groups and security forces that draw on Sunni Arabs as well as Shiite Muslims and Kurds. Iraqis, Bayh said, must ask themselves some tough questions.

"Do the Iraqis want to live together in one country?" he said. "Are they willing to make the tough political compromises necessary to bring that about? If they don't in spite of all our help [the conflict] will not end."

It remains unclear how much sway U.S. officials will have over the new Iraqi government, which appears set to be dominated by Shiite Islamists with ties to Iran and autonomy-minded Kurds.

Americans in recent weeks increasingly have talked of shutting the spigot of reconstruction cash coming to the country.

After a week marked by major insurgent attacks, there was little violence reported Saturday. A suicide car bomb struck a patrol of police special forces on patrol in eastern Baghdad, injuring four commandos and five civilians.

Gunmen also kidnapped a female American journalist and killed her Iraqi translator Saturday in western Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said. News reports did not identify the journalist.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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