Looking For Light In Iraq
Behind all the violence, some signs of progress
Samir Sumaidaie, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, is under no illusions about the difficulty of achieving peace in his country. His deputy chief of mission has lost three nephews to the violence engulfing the country-two of them killed by Shiite militia members when they went to a Baghdad hospital to retrieve wounded neighbors, the third by Sunni insurgents while visiting a cemetery to mourn one of the dead. "Extremists have a way of finding reasons to continue fighting," says the gray-haired engineer, who was ambassador to the United Nations before coming to Washington last April. But he has not lost hope.
Obscured by the reports of spiraling violence and the latest contretemps between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. officials is the surprising fact that the Iraqi government itself has laid out a timeline for dealing with the most contentious issues tearing the country apart. Achieving a timeline is not the same thing as reaching substantive agreement on solutions, but it may provide the kickstart for a last-ditch attempt to avoid fullblown civil war-and if deadlines matter, it is a measuring stick of the Iraqis' own making.
"Outlaws." Two months ago, the Political Council for National Security-which includes the prime minister, the president and vice presidents, the head of parliament, and their deputies-agreed on 15 items to be accomplished between September 2006 and March 2007, ending with a referendum on constitutional amendments. The timetable has already slipped by a month, but they have made progress on two key items: The parliament passed a foreign investment law last month and is debating legislation on how the oil industry will be run and profits divided among the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish populations. Sumaidaie expects the measure to pass this month. The next item is revising the de-Baathification process that drove many former regime bureaucrats and soldiers into the insurgency rather than offering them incentives to support the new government.
By all accounts, the toughest items on the agenda are those slated for December, when a law offering amnesty to Sunni and Baathist insurgents and demobilizing militias is supposed to be passed. A U.S. defense intelligence official with long experience in Iraq seriously doubts whether Iraq's Shiite-majority government will offer a genuine olive branch to Sunni insurgents, whom it deeply mistrusts, or defang the Shiite militias that, to many senior Iraqi officials, are the clearest means for ensuring Shiite dominance over Iraq. He points to the fate of Iraq's 8th Division general who dared to confront the powerful Shiite militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the city of Diwaniya: A Sadr official was appointed to investigate him. And, the U.S. official warns, "Without really reaching out to the former regime members who are in Damascus supplying guidance to the insurgency groups and having a real amnesty ... this is not going anywhere."
Maliki, says Sumaidaie, wants to pursue a "holistic" approach against the militias, which are made up of criminals, political figures, and unemployed youths, a strategy "based on peeling all these layers off one at a time." He cites Sadr's recent public denunciation of specific "outlaw" militia leaders as "an important step toward breaking the problem up into manageable chunks." Ultimately, Sumaidaie says, "the question must be put to Moqtada [al-]Sadr, 'What kind of Iraq do you want ... a divided country ruled by warlords [or] a thriving country?'"
Waving a wand? The ambassador acknowledges that "real pressure is also needed" to back up such bargaining. He reiterated Iraq's view that Iran and other neighbors must be brought to the diplomatic table. "There is a great sense of urgency," Sumadaie says, while admitting the government has limited room to maneuver. "The prime minister cannot wave a wand and make the militias disappear."
There is great skepticism among U.S. officials over whether Maliki is ready to rein in the Shiite militias anytime soon. But it is a marker the prime minister has himself laid out, and one that might be the basis for an alternative U.S. approach. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and President Bush's former head of policy planning at the State Department, suggests "giving the Iraqi government an ultimatum to achieve agreement on core issues. The U.S. would inform the Iraqi government-ideally, following close consultations-that U.S. troops will be removed from the country's center unless the Iraqis show they are willing and able to meet certain standards by a specified date. Such standards would be military, i.e., achieve a certain level of proficiency, and political, i.e., gain broad agreement on new power- and revenue-sharing arrangements." Then, he says, "if the Iraqis fail to meet the tests, a substantial share of the onus for the withdrawal would ostensibly be on the Iraqis for their shortcomings, rather than on the U.S. stemming from a lack of resolve."
This story appears in the November 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.