Can Iraq Be Reconciled?

| Mon Jun. 26, 2006 2:48 PM EDT

Borzou Daraghai of the Los Angeles Times has the best coverage I've seen yet of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's new "national reconciliation plan" for Iraq. The plan, according to the Washington Post, was watered down after "several revisions"— after some hectoring on the part of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, perhaps?—but it still contains an amnesty measure for insurgents along with proposals to build up the Iraqi security forces and dismantle the Shiite militias that are causing such havoc nowadays.

In other words, it's an attempt to convince disgruntled Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and start participating in Iraq's fragile political system, which currently looks more like rule by gangsters and kleptocrats than it does any sort of democracy. Still, it's a step. So what's wrong with it? Most crucially, as Daraghai reports, the reconciliation plan is vague about laying down markers for U.S. troop withdrawal:

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By diluting any language about a troop withdrawal, the proposal undermines itself, said Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political scientist sympathetic to the Sunni cause.

"If I were the resistance, I wouldn't talk with a government that depended on a foreign army," he said. "I would talk with the foreign army."

That seems exactly right. The basic dynamic in Iraq is this: A lot of Sunni insurgents are waging war precisely because they fear the U.S. wants to stay in Iraq forever. The Bush administration, for its part, really does want to stay in Iraq forever (proposals for slight troop reductions notwithstanding) and has been planning permanent bases around the country for some time—the sort of thing guaranteed to infuriate insurgents. Meanwhile, the administration appears to be dissuading Maliki from setting concrete conditions or dates for a U.S. drawdown.

The problem here is that it's unlikely that insurgents will see any point in negotiating with or supporting the Iraqi government if Maliki can't promise to get the U.S. out of Iraq. Withdrawal is really the main issue here, and any "reconciliation" plan that doesn't address that isn't likely to succeed. There's also this:

Some Iraqi critics also said the plan failed to address the changing nature of the violence, which they argue has turned more and more from a nationalist fight against U.S. occupation into a sectarian war waged between Arab-backed Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

"The whole thing is mixed up," said Sheik Ali Abdullah, leader of the Hamad Jasim, a branch of the Dulaimi tribe in Al Anbar. "We're giving Maliki a full opportunity, but we're sure this government will fail."…

Other Shiites characterized the plan as a way to call the insurgents' bluff, forcing disgruntled nationalists to distinguish themselves from the Islamic extremists or former Hussein loyalists who oppose the new Iraqi state. If some Sunnis continue to fight because they want the Americans out, here's an opening to push forth that agenda, said Fadhil Shara, another lawmaker in the Shiite coalition.

So the plan doesn't appear to address Sunni fears about the new Shiite-dominated government adequately. It's likely that many Sunnis will reject it for that reason. But many Shiites, for their part, seem to be seeing this as an excuse to give Sunnis one last chance before they really take the gloves off. That hardly bodes well. But it certainly doesn't look like a dispute the U.S. military can solve by staying in Iraq—at this point, the Bush administration appears to be making things worse by refusing to say whether the U.S. will ever leave. And since Bush doesn't seem to want to leave Iraq, a clear answer one way or the other isn't likely to be forthcoming.

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