from the December 08, 2005 edition -

A shift toward diplomacy in Iraq

By Helena Cobban

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - On Nov. 30, President Bush finally told the US public and the world how he plans to achieve the victory in Iraq that has eluded him for the past two-and-a-half years. Some of the benchmarks he provided there for what constitutes "success" in Iraq were good ones - though simply by articulating them, he underlined how very far the United States still has to go.

I found the president's speech generally unconvincing. But at the working diplomatic level inside Iraq his administration has recently started to jettison some burdensome ideology and is pursuing much more levelheaded and constructive policies. It remains to be seen whether those shifts can help the administration to avoid disaster in Iraq in 2006.

Among the benchmarks that Mr. Bush spelled out in his speech was this longer-term goal: "An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country." Unfortunately, though, Iraq is still very far from being peaceful, stable, or secure.

Regarding democracy, nationwide elections will again be held on Dec. 15. But participation is expected - even more than in last January's poll - to be along highly sectarian and ethnic lines. That fact, allied to the rapid move the recent constitutional talks made toward fragmentation of the country, means that preserving an Iraq that is in any meaningful way "united" now looks just about impossible.

As we know from India, Bosnia, and elsewhere, the breakup of a country can be an inhumane and violent process. Already in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, vicious campaigns of ethnic and sectarian "cleansing" have been under way for some time now.

The 275-member parliament elected on Dec. 15 will be important for two reasons. It has a term of four years, and thus it should have an increasing role in governing the country. But long before any significant US drawdown from Iraq, the new parliament will be negotiating the 55 portions of the new constitution on which agreement has so far proved impossible.

Is a leadership committed to Iraqi unity likely to emerge from next week's elections? Probably not. Two prominent candidates have positioned themselves as "unifiers": veteran pro-American politician Ahmad Chalabi, and former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi. Both have many flaws as candidates. Then last weekend, the powerful Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani publicly urged his followers (1) to vote, and (2) to avoid voting for any party that is secular, or small. That edict will sway millions of Shiites to vote for the religious-Shiite "mega-list," the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). And given that Shiites make up more than 60 percent of the voters, the edict almost certainly dooms the chances of the much smaller, "national unity" lists headed by Mr. Allawi or Mr. Chalabi.

The UIA looks set to win most of the seats allocated to the heavily Shiite south and center of the country. In the northeast, the coalition of Kurdish parties looks similarly poised to win. Sunni Arab sectarian parties may win most or all of the seats allocated to the three majority-Sunni provinces.

In the constitutional negotiations that will follow the elections, the Kurds will support further decentralization of the Iraqi state, and the Sunnis will strongly oppose it. The UIA will have the largest say - and right now, important forces within the UIA are strong supporters of decentralization. This could easily mean that the Sunnis will be sidelined: Parliament might end up supporting the further decentralization of the state - and do so on terms highly injurious to the Sunnis. Given that Iraq's Sunnis have many links with nearby Arab countries, while the Shiites have many links with weighty neighbor Iran, if there's a serious rift inside Iraq over the extent of the country's decentralization the scene might be set for a broader regional confrontation.

It is within this tense situation that US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has been given new leeway to negotiate ways to avoid further escalation. On the Sunni side, Mr. Khalilzad has used Washington's strong links with Arab countries to open channels of dialogue with some Sunnis inside Iraq. And on the Shiite side, he has used his own growing relations with Iraqi Shiites to try to open a dialogue with Tehran.

New US peace overtures to Tehran? You'd think that would be newsworthy enough for Bush to have mentioned. But evidently, he decided not to startle his backers at home by doing so. And anyway, the process of opening that dialogue is still going slowly.

In a complex situation like that in Iraq, dialogue with all interested parties is always a far better course than escalation and the issuing of shrill threats of further "regime change" around the region.

Who knows how - or whether - even Khalilzad's smart new diplomacy can help reduce the tensions in Iraq and the region. But with 150,000 US troops placed as tempting targets throughout Iraq, let's hope he can succeed. Diplomacy, much more than raw military force, now looks like the administration's only true "Plan for Victory."

Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.