It won't be quick or easy. But, surprisingly, there are at least some ideas
National compact. There is growing support for the idea of making a full-bore push to reach a political agreement among Iraq's warring factions. Some see it as the only real hope for ending the violence. One of the experts advising the Baker-Hamilton group, Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says: "The most important element of a new approach is a fundamentally reinvigorated political effort that would put pressure on the ... government [of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] to do more in extending a hand to Sunnis."
Analysts differ over whether the Shiite or Sunni antagonists need to be pressured more. One intelligence official says that coercion is also required on the Sunni side, where insurgents still harbor dreams of returning to power, provoking fear among the Shiites, who turn for protection to their militias. "The Sunni have guns, recruits, motivation," the official says, "and the wherewithal to continue this for a very long time."
The administration has been trying to bring about political reconciliation for the past year, and the Iraqi government laid out a timeline for doing so in October, although it failed this month to reach agreement on allowing more Baathists to resume jobs in the government and failed to pass a new oil law, as hoped. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Afghan-American who speaks fluent Arabic, was regarded by many as the best hope for brokering a deal. He is reportedly leaving his post in the next few months.
Some criticize the administration for having failed to reach out to Sunni antagonists before they grew so strong. One official asserts that the National Security Council's director for Iraq, Meghan O'Sullivan, blocked attempts to negotiate with key members of the insurgency and former regime officials, a charge she denies. Even now, says Diamond, "we need to talk very intensively and urgently, without any preconditions, to those elements who have been excluded-the former Baathists, Army officers, the Iraqi Islamist groups." In the past month, there have been a few small gains on this front, as secret talks with some insurgents won their promise not to attack coalition forces, and some Sunni tribes have been enlisted to go after al Qaeda insurgents.
Arm twisting. In response to the criticism that the United States has failed to put enough pressure on the Maliki government, a senior administration official said: "Some assume that all we say to the Iraqis is what we say in public." Indeed, on a recent visit to Iraq, General Abizaid told Maliki he needed to take action against the Shiite militias "very soon," and he told Congress that he believes the government has only four to six months before the violence spirals beyond its ability to rein it in. But the senior administration official acknowledged that the piecemeal approach to negotiation hasn't succeeded. "The Iraqi leadership has said it is easier to do it incrementally. The reality is that it is very hard to get without trade-offs." That recognition reflects the administration's growing willingness to embrace a new approach, to convene the parties and tell them that the time to resolve their differences is now.