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But none of that is assured. In the eight months since taking over as U.S. envoy in Baghdad, Khalilzad, 54, has earned the respect of both his Iraqi counterparts and his bosses in Washington for the enthusiasm and savvy he brings to the world's toughest job. "Right place, right guy, at the right time," says a U.S. official involved in Iraq policy. And yet the burden of trying to find a political solution to an increasingly brutal, costly and unpopular war is straining even Khalilzad's relentless optimism. He says he believes Iraq is "heading in the right direction," but those who know him say he is aware that he may be powerless to stop Iraq's unraveling. A recent visitor to Iraq who saw Khalilzad says he privately complained that he needs more help from Washington to apply international pressure on Iraq's warring parties. (He tells TIME he's happy with the support he's getting from the Administration.) "What is exasperating for him," says his wife Cheryl Benard, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., "is to find himself dealing with ... agendas at play in Iraq on the part of some leading Iraqis that have nothing whatsoever to do with the good or advancement of stability in their own country."
KHALILZAD DIDN'T PLAN TO BE there. He became ambassador to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and built a close friendship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, helping negotiate deals with ethnic and sectarian groups so numerous it would make an Iraqi's head spin. "Zal had definitively been promised that if he agreed to go to Kabul, he would be given a more relaxed and family-friendly assignment thereafter," says Benard. But last June, with the U.S. struggling to contain the insurgency in Iraq, President Bush sent Khalilzad to Baghdad. It made sense: Khalilzad was an early proponent of regime change and had worked with Iraqi exiles in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. "He was already on first-name terms with many of the key players," says a senior diplomat at a European embassy in Baghdad. "There was no time wasted in measuring each other up. He could get to work directly off the plane."
Whereas his predecessors Paul Bremer and John Negroponte often seemed remote to Iraqi politicians, Khalilzad, a secular Muslim who speaks Farsi and some Arabic, is informal and chatty. In meetings with Iraqi leaders, he sips sweetened black tea and indulges their speechifying without asking for translation. Iraqi leaders say they see him as one of their own, crediting his Afghan upbringing for his accommodating manner. Says Humam Hamoodi, a leading politician of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI): "The way he sits, the way he eats, we feel he's no stranger to us."
It helps too that he has powerful backers in Washington. A protégé of Vice President Dick Cheney, Khalilzad speaks frequently to Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "He certainly has a freedom of action that others do not," says a U.S. diplomat involved in Middle East issues. During last summer's negotiations over a new constitution, Khalilzad took cell-phone calls from Rice in the presence of Iraqi leaders, giving her updates and assessments, according to a U.S. consultant who observed him. It showed Iraqis he had a direct line to Washington and enhanced trust that he had no hidden agenda. Hamoodi says agreement on the constitution "would have been impossible without him."