Petraeus Tries to Make Headway in Iraq
Lamb believes real progress on reconciliation can be made this year. To skeptics, he notes that the current peace in Northern Ireland would have seemed impossible not long ago. Iraq, he says, "has the potential to re-establish itself as a formidable economic power and force for good in the region."
Negotiators see the opportunity to wean large numbers of Sunnis away from the armed struggle, as increasing numbers are fed up with al Qaeda's relentless bombing campaign against civilians and its foreign influence. Tribes in Diyala and Salahuddin province now want to follow the lead of Sunni tribes in Anbar province, who joined provisional militias called "emergency response units" last year and began fighting al Qaeda.
Still, there is the problem that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resists dealing with key Sunnis. Moreover, Maliki governs by relying almost entirely on a small coterie of Shiite advisers from his Dawa party. Only Maliki and his advisers are in the room for his weekly video teleconferences with President Bush.
In a surprise visit to Iraq on May 9, Vice President Cheney met with Maliki behind closed doors to urge him to move forward. The message from Congress is also loud and clear: U.S. support will evaporate at summer's end if the Iraqi government has not made any progress on political reconciliation. But two formidable obstacles stand in the way. One is the Shiites' desire for power after years of oppression. They are the first Shiites to head an Arab state, and the temptation to play winner-take-all politics is strong. The other obstacle is Shiites' deep fear, paranoia even, that the Baathists will come back to power if they yield an inch.
Those sentiments are powerfully reinforced every time a car bomb explodes. After a recent attack near the most important Shiite shrine, Ambassador Crocker said, "We have got to do everything we can to keep them from hitting a target of cataclysmic proportions. There is a limit beyond which society just begins to come unglued."
The mounting pressure from Washington may help prod Iraq's government. But officials here say that the American bargaining leverage will be fatally weakened if the United States is determined to withdraw from Iraq at all costs. The various Iraqi factions then have no incentive to compromise and instead will seek safety in their own sect's armed camp. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, appeals for Americans' patience. "This is not a battle that could be won in any cycle of any administration, and it will not be subject to American political timetables," he says.
Still, Petraeus and his subordinate generals in Iraq know that to buy more time for the plan to work they need to show some progress by September-when Petraeus is due to report to Congress on the Iraq situation and the impact of deploying the additional nearly 30,000 U.S. troops. A Joint Strategic Assessment Team, led by one of Petraeus's informal "brain trust" members, Col. H.R. McMaster, has just completed a study assessing what goals are achievable in the short term. (Bush's new war czar, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, is supposed to help push Petraeus's and Crocker's requests through the bureaucracy.)