WASHINGTON - Daily pressure must be put on Iraq's Shiite-led government to be more inclusive of rival Sunnis in order to heal sectarian divisions, the nominee to be the next US ambassador said Wednesday.
"Sunni-Shia cleavages are extremely deep," Brett McGurk told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing.
"There is the overhang of a bitter sectarian war, which the Iraqis are still overcoming. We need to help them overcome it."
Iraq has been hit by a series of intertwined political crises, with accusations by the secular mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was concentrating power in his hands.
Amid calls to unseat Maliki, the government has become paralyzed and parliament has passed no significant legislation except for the budget. Other important measures such as a hydrocarbons law regulating the country's oil sector have been delayed.
On Wednesday, Maliki blamed "foreign influences" for the protracted political crisis.
"Fear, mistrust and score-settling dominate the political discourse," said McGurk, a career diplomat, who previously served at the US embassy in Baghdad during the Bush administration and as a special assistant on Iraq to President Barack Obama.
"We need to remind the current government every day that they need to do what they can to make Sunnis feel like they're a full part of the process."
McGurk vowed if confirmed to try to visit the Kurdish north "at least once a week."
"We have to play an important role in mitigating" rivalries, he said.
Senator John McCain said on Tuesday he has "grave concerns" about McGurk's appointment to replace outgoing ambassador James Jeffrey because he had failed to negotiate a residual force to stay behind in Baghdad after December.
"I think when you see the unravelling of Iraq that's taking place, we should have had a residual force," McCain insisted.
But State Department spokesman Mark Toner dismissed the criticism, saying "the United States feels that we've got a strong bilateral relationship with Iraq. It's growing stronger.
"As the ambassador-designate said, you know, we're looking at right-sizing our embassy... looking at ways that we can change the personnel at our embassy to fit this new relationship.
"We continue to engage with Iraq's political leaders in forging a better and more productive political dialogue there," Toner added.