A fresh start for Iraq?

by Jonathan Steele
15 July 2008
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London - There's an odd thing about Baghdad: Iran is the only regional power with an embassy, while US President George W. Bush's best Arab allies Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia refuse to let their diplomats live there.

It is not for want of US effort. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has raised the anomaly several times with Iraq's Arab neighbours, as have lesser emissaries. So far, to no avail.

Jordan remembers how its embassy in Iraq was bombed by al Qaeda in 2003, and Egypt grapples with its ambassador having been ambushed and murdered. Iran, meanwhile, celebrates the most cordial relations it has had with an Iraqi government for several decades.

The fall of Saddam Hussein allowed Iran to expand its influence in Iraq. It also enabled al Qaeda to train and dispatch thousands of young men to Iraq to attack Americans. No doubt many will turn up in other countries later, in search of new US targets. These are just two of the reasons why the US occupation has been such a defeat for Bush.

If security fears were the only factor behind Arab governments' unwillingness to send diplomats to Baghdad, it would not be so bad for Bush. But politics come into play too. Arab leaders are reluctant to be associated with Iraq's Shi'a-led government, which is seen by some as excessively sectarian and not genuinely sovereign. For many independent players, the current government lacks legitimacy and authority.

The division was underlined last month when the Accordance Front, the main Sunni grouping in the Iraqi parliament, suspended its decision to rejoin the government after withdrawing last year. Ever since Sunni tribal leaders in the Anbar province started to resist al Qaeda in 2006 in a movement called "The Awakening", there has been political turbulence in Sunni-majority areas.

The older generation of Sunni politicians in Baghdad has worried more intently out of fear of being portrayed as weak in their dealings with the Shi'a-majority government and the Americans. Hence their refusal to participate in the government unless given serious evidence that Sunnis will have a real share of power.

But all is not well within Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shi'a front either. Moqtada al Sadr's anti-occupation ministers dropped out of the coalition months ago. Now he is calling for weekly demonstrations against the long-term security agreement Washington wants to sign with Baghdad.

The pact is meant to be Bush's legacy to the Iraqi people a document that will allow US troops to remain in the country in perpetuity. There may be wording about "no permanent bases" but since the definition of non-permanent is infinitely flexible the door will be open for an American presence as long as the US president finds it sustainable with his electorate.

Al Sadr is demanding a referendum on the pact. Meanwhile, Ministers of Parliament from other parties are complaining that it is being drafted behind closed doors with no chance for the public to see the text and comment. Al Sadr's referendum call is only the populist tip of an iceberg of unhappiness among wide sections of the Iraqi public who feel shut out of a key debate over sovereignty.

Amid the gloom, Bush points to the surge of 30,000 extra US troops as a victory. It has helped along with several factors to achieve a drop in attacks on Iraqi civilians, and that must be welcomed. But the levels of killing are still no better than 2005. More significantly, the surge has not resolved Iraq's deep political divisions or given its government legitimacy, either at home or in the Arab world beyond.

The only way to give Iraq a fresh start is for the next US president to make a clear announcement of a short timetable for withdrawing all foreign troops. This will strengthen the Sunni nationalists who are confronting al Qaeda and undercut al Qaeda's claim that their fighters are needed to provide resistance.

At the same time, there needs to be a broad-based conference, perhaps jointly hosted by the Arab League and the United Nations, to bring together a wide variety of Iraqis including political and religious leaders, the commanders of al Sahwa and the other Sunni and Shi'a militias and civil society representatives to prepare a coalition government of national re-construction. Elections at this stage will only be divisive countries emerging from war cannot afford them.

Only when Iraqis know they are to regain their sovereignty will they look into the abyss and halt the drift to civil war. Political violence between Sunnis and Shi'as is a new phenomenon in the history of modern Iraq. In spite of the bitterness, bereavement, and bloodshed of the last three years, the cancer of sectarianism can be reversed. But for that to happen, Iraqis must become masters in their house again.

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* Jonathan Steele is a Guardian columnist, foreign correspondent and author who has been to Iraq on eight assignments since the invasion of 2003. His book, DEFEAT: Why America and Britain lost Iraq, is published by Counterpoint Press. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek's Post Global and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 July 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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