The Path To Peace

Something is stirring in Iraq in the wake of the historic meeting last weekend in Cairo, sponsored by the League of Arab States, in which virtually all of Iraq's political factions sat down to talk at a reconciliation conference. Three important things took place at that meeting. First, primarily at the insistence of the Sunni delegates, all participants called for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, putting virtually the entire Iraqi establishment behind a call for the United States to leave Iraq; second, all participants declared in the official statement that "resistance is a legitimate right of all peoples," thus conferring near-recognition to the armed Iraqi opposition inside Iraq; and third, the meeting set a date in February to convene a second, much larger, conference that could help settle the war in Iraq diplomatically.

That is, if the Bush administration steps up to the opportunity created by the Cairo initiative. That initiative, incidentally, was supported not only by the Arab League but by Iran, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

The main task for the United States after Cairo, besides getting its force ready to pack up and leave, is to sit down face to face and talk peace with the Iraqi Baath party. Not with the malleable, quisling-like Sunnis that it has previously enticed into previous Iraqi interim governments. Not with a handful of Sunni tribal chieftains who can be bribed, cajoled, or blackmailed into joining the regime of the Shiite-religious parties. Rather the United States has to talk directly with the leaders of the Iraqi resistance. And that means the Baath.

Why is it so important to talk to the Baathists? Simply because, like it or not, the remnants of the millions-strong Baath in Iraq are the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency. That insurgency is not, chiefly, a force led either by foreigners or by radical-right Islamists like those of the Zarqawi-led Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Baath provides the generals, the officers, the platoon commanders, the intelligence experts, the makers of roadside bombs, the spies who infiltrate Iraq's government and even the U.S. occupation army (via translators, cooks and drivers). It is the Baath with the network of outside support that stretches into Syria, Jordan, the Gulf states and Yemen, and which maintains a web of ties to senior Arab government officials -- including the Arab League. During the Cairo meeting, at the insistence of the Shiite leaders, Baathists were excluded from the meeting room itself. But they were in the corridors, conducting talks with critical Iraqis who want to settle the war and get U.S. troops out.

Since the Cairo meeting, key Iraqis, including President Talabani and his security adviser, have said repeatedly that they are making contacts with resistance groups. It isn't, yet, exactly clear who these groups are, and whether or not they represent anything important. According to The New York Times, Talabani's security adviser, a general and former intelligence officer, said: "I received phone calls from different movements, different groups, some claiming they represent the resistance. They said they're ready to participate in the political process."

In his blog Informed Comment , Juan Cole reports (in far more detail than the U.S. media, naturally) that the CIA, various Arab intelligence services, some Iraqi government officials, and key segments of the Iraqi resistance -- which Cole suspects are "mostly neo-Baathist" -- met in the environment of the Cairo conference. They discussed how to isolate the Zarqawi-linked terrorists, and they put forward (as Cole reports, in translation from an Arab newspaper) four requirements:


  1. Working to end the foreign occupation
  2. Compensation to the Iraqis for the damages arising from the American invasion
  3. The release of prisoners
  4. Building political and military institutions that are not subservient to American and regional influence


That all sounds like a reasonable price to pay for the United States to extricate itself cleanly from Iraq. It still isn't clear if such contacts by the CIA and the U.S. military are true peace feelers, or if they are freelance contacts by elements of the U.S. bureaucracy opposed to Bush's imperial Middle East policy. It's even possible these contacts are CIA efforts to penetrate, identify, and kill resistance leaders. But the fact that President Talabani, a Kurd, is appearing to open the door to talks with the resistance suggests that the Kurds are having second thoughts about their alliance with the Shiites. The possibility of an open split became evident in the following way: the Association of Muslim Scholars, a pro-Baath organization in Iraq, asked the Arab League's Amr Moussa to intervene with Talabani to halt a planned military offensive against the insurgents just two weeks before the Dec. 15 elections. Moussa did so, Talabani agreed, and the offensive was called off. Then Talabani started talking about meeting with resistance leaders. On the Shiite side, Abdel Aziz Hakim, in a chilling interview with The Washington Post, went so far as to blast the Americans for holding back a Shiite-led offensive against the resistance. Said Hakim:
There are plans to confront terrorists, approved by security agencies, but the Americans reject that. Because of that mistaken policy, we have lost a lot. For instance, the ministries of Interior and Defense want to carry out some operations to clean out some areas.
All of this is confusing. Some of it can be attributed to efforts in advance of the Dec. 15 vote -- which, incidentally, the U.S. media had failed utterly to cover. The Bush administration and some Iraqis would like to draw the Sunnis into the political process before the vote, and to involve them in assembling a government afterwards. However, the vast majority of Sunnis -- and virtually all of the Baath and the resistance -- consider the election a fraud and the government to be a U.S. puppet regime. Thus it will be impossible to create a Sunni contingent with sufficient credibility to call a halt to the insurgency after Dec. 15, unless that contingent is all-inclusive enough to bring in the Baathists. And it isn't like the Baath isn't ready to talk: Over and over, the Baath says that it wants to talk to the United States, not to the Baghdad "Green Zone" government. So far, there is little or no sign that any senior U.S. officials want to talk to the Baath, just as there was no high-level support for the Cairo conference from the State Department or the White House.
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