"Everyone wants me to solve their problems,"
Zalmay Khalilzad says as he adjusts his bulletproof vest and settles into the back seat of his armored SUV. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq has just emerged from a meeting at the sprawling riverside home of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the coalition of Shi'ite parties that controls Iraq's incoming parliament. It didn't go well. For more than an hour, Khalilzad tried to persuade al-Hakim to help revive the Iraqi political process, stalled in part because the Shi'ites refuse to bend to demands by secular, Kurdish and Sunni parties that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari not be given a second term. Al-Hakim didn't want to confront his fellow Shi'ite. But he had another idea: Couldn't Khalilzad nudge al-Jaafari aside? Khalilzad kept a straight face at the suggestion. But as his convoy speeds through the streets of Baghdad toward the relative safety of the highly fortified green zone, Khalilzad chuckles wearily, knowing that for the U.S., al-Hakim's proposal is not a solution but a trap. "Whether it works or not," he says, "they will blame it on me."
That's a familiar situation for Khalilzad these days. As Iraq's political parties squabble over the nature and composition of a new government, sectarian violence has pushed the country closer than ever to full-bore civil war. U.S. commanders believe that Sunni-Shi'ite violence is surpassing jihadi terrorism as the biggest threat to the country's long-term stability. And yet the prospect of a deeper, more vicious war has so far failed to prod the country's leaders into setting aside their rivalries and forming a broadly representative government, which may be the U.S.'s best hope for subduing the insurgency. The task of bringing together Iraqis torn by bloodshed and ill will has fallen to Khalilzad, the gregarious, glad-handing Afghan-born diplomat, who says he enjoys "getting my hands dirty in the grubby aspects of politics and policymaking." But the dilemma for Khalilzad is the one facing the Bush Administration as it tries to find an honorable way out of Iraq: Once you get your hands dirty, how do you avoid being held responsible for cleaning up the mess?
Khalilzad is searching for answers. TIME accompanied him last week on a whirlwind round of parleys with the key political players, providing a glimpse into how he navigates through the complexities of Iraqi politics. He revealed plans to hold a conference at which he hopes to press Iraq's political leaders to reach agreement on a new, pluralistic government of national unity. "We'll work together day and night until we finish the job," he says. Khalilzad told TIME that if the conference succeeds and the parties settle other disputed issues, the U.S. may be able to pull out some troops this year. "If we get--when we get--the national-unity government, when we have ministries that are run by competent ministers, and as we get into the next phase of our Sunni outreach ... I see a set of circumstances, frankly, that would allow for a significant withdrawal of our forces."