US ambassador: 2009 key year for

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq has made tremendous progress over the past three months but the United States must remain engaged over the long term if it wants those gains to solidify, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said.

Ryan Crocker told The Associated Press that 2009 will be a critical year for Iraq as it holds two crucial elections that will determine if democracy takes hold.

"I think we have seen a tremendous amount of progress, even since September. But the development of this new Iraq is going to be a very long time in the making, and we need to be engaged here," Crocker said in an interview ahead of Monday's opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Crocker's remarks were an indirect appeal for the U.S. to stay engaged diplomatically and politically in Iraq regardless of the eventual withdrawal of the approximately 146,000 troops stationed here. The veteran diplomat has served before in the Middle East, where a lack of U.S. resolve in places like Lebanon 20 years ago opened that country to meddling from Iran and Syria.

Crocker said Baghdad was looking to the West for the first time since the Army's 1958 revolution that toppled Iraq's monarchy and set the stage for the ascendance of the Baath party, which ruled Iraq with an iron fist until the 2003 invasion.

"Iraq has defined itself in general hostility to the West and the United States. You now have a fundamentally different state and society taking shape that values those relations, that values those contacts, that wants its children educated in American and other Western universities. And we need to be there as a partner to ensure that those relationships are solidly built and well maintained," he said.

"We will be engaged in different ways as security continues to improve and as Iraqi security forces are more and more in the lead. But that engagement over the long term is key," he added.

Although more than 60 people have been killed in a spate of suicide bombings and other attacks since New Year's Day, security around Iraq has dramatically improved. Attacks have dropped from an average of 180 a day one year ago to about 10 now, the U.S. military has said.

Crocker recently spoke about the need for Americans to view Iraq with "a sense of strategic patience" because the stakes in the region are so high. If the U.S. were to turn its attention elsewhere, he told the AP in September, then America would pay what he described as a "major long-term price."

Speaking in the courtyard of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday, Crocker said the implementation on Jan. 1 of two new agreements governing security and bilateral relations was going well.

"The focus obviously has been on security as it should be. That coordination has been extremely smooth during these first few days. In the days ahead we will be focusing on other aspects of the transition," he said in the interview, which was embargoed until Monday's inauguration of the new American embassy.

In the coming month, Iraq and American officials will work under a new agreement to establish solid relations in areas such as finance, economy, culture and trade.

He said the new embassy was a sign that Iraq and the United States were moving into a new relationship. Formerly, the embassy was in the Republican Palace, the vast structure that had been the center of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The palace, a symbol of America's nearly six-year occupation of Iraq, was turned over to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Jan. 1 to become Iraq's new seat of government.

The new embassy is the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, with fortified working space for 1,000 people and living quarters for several hundred on a 104-acre site. It includes 27 buildings and cost about $736 million.

"The move into this new embassy, it symbolizes a normalizing relationship but also very much an enduring relationship," Crocker said. He added that following the Dec. 31 end of a U.N. mandate that governed the presence of U.S. and other troops here, "it is about a bilateral structure for that relationship and I think this embassy symbolizes that in a very important way."

He said the most important developments of 2009 will be provincial elections at the end of January and national polls at the end of the year.

"2009 is going to be a year of many things, perhaps most importantly it will be a year of elections," he said, adding that the national elections are as important "or more important than a first round. That is when the architecture of democracy is really cemented. How incumbents deal with loss, how new faces integrate themselves into the political structures, how parties organize, combine and recombine will all be very, very important in 2009."

The top U.S. general in Iraq said recently that the two-month period following the provincial elections will determine the future role and strength of American troops in the country. That period, Army Gen. Ray Odierno told the AP, will allow U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces to ensure those legitimately elected can take office.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the elections will redress problems created by the last regional balloting in January 2005, when Sunnis largely stayed away from the polls.