WASHINGTON &

The Iraqi ambassador to Washington is commanding only a fraction of the turnout accorded the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, who in Capitol Hill appearances is seeking to discourage growing sentiment for prompt withdrawal of most U.S. troops from the war.




While Senate committees were questioning Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie was telling a few score journalists and scholars at a Washington think tank that his country wanted U.S. troops to leave, but not too quickly.




"Let's be very clear. Ultimately, Iraq has to be independent &

totally independent, stand on its own two feet," Sumaida'ie said.




"We urge America to gradually turn the burden over to us," he said Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think they have to leave in a responsible manner."




The veteran diplomat predicted a gradual reduction of the 160,000 U.S. troops over the next few years, but he said the biggest obstacle to withdrawal was the lack of a strong and competent security force.




Sumaida'ie's presentation brimmed with optimism, but there was open criticism as well. "A lot of American money, a lot of taxpayers' money, was spent in Iraq. I would say that it could have been spent better and it could have produced a great deal more benefit both for Iraqis and for the Americans," the ambassador said.




For one thing, he said, far too much attention was given to building a bigger security force, and not enough to the force's quality.




"Numbers sometimes get in the way," the ambassador said. "They are sometimes counterproductive. When you have a police force which is inundated by militiamen, that is no use."




He suggested that if the aim is to bring U.S. troops home, more attention should be paid to competent security. "Improvement in Iraqi security is the surest route to withdrawal," the ambassador said.




One problem, he said, is that "criminals" have to be weeded out. As interior minister four years ago, the ambassador said he had to force 20,000 out of Iraq"s security service.




Sumaida'ie also disputed the notion that the various ethnic groups in Iraq were resisting building a united country.




Sumaida'ie said Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis were at heart Iraqis. "They have mastered the art of peaceful and harmonious coexistence."




And he suggested the Shiites could be counted on to resist their powerful neighbor, Iran. "There is no willingness on the part of Iraqi Shiite leaders to work as surrogates for Iran," he said. "The Shiites of Iraq are very Iraqi."




Still, the process of developing a country that can stand on its own "is a painful process" and "there is not going to be a magic transformation."




Asked about the U.S. presidential campaign, Sumaida'ie started down the road usually taken by foreign officials, saying he preferred to stay away from American politics.




But he went on to suggest that the candidates calling for a pullout &

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama &

could have a different view should either become president.




Whoever is elected "will have to look at the reality of the situation and will have to make responsible decisions at that time," he said. "Now it is all about getting votes."




Without referring by name to Clinton, Obama or John McCain, the probable Republican nominee, the ambassador said, "When the candidate is successful and is in the White House, that candidate is going to have a different mindframe and will have to act on the basis of American national interest."