Peace Talk

The United States has so far been hostile at worst and lukewarm at best in regard to a critical peace initiative by the League of Arab States. A major conference held in Cairo this weekend provided the spectrum of Iraq's political class with an opportunity to engage in a give-and-take about a negotiated end to the war in Iraq. During the three-day conference, which ended Monday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made an offer to start talks with the armed Iraqi fighters. "If those who call themselves the Iraqi resistance desired to contact me, I would welcome them,” said Talabani.

But in his noon briefing on Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack discussed the Arab League peace talks coolly and only in response to a question. He refused to endorse Talabani's call for talks between the Iraqi government and the resistance. Instead, in keeping with President Bush's insistence on staying the course and Vice President Cheney's address at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Monday, McCormack emphasized that “hardcore terrorists” in Iraq will be dealt with “on the military front.”

The fact that the United States is not trumpeting the importance of the Cairo peace talks, and the fact that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top-level officials did not attend it, are failures of diplomacy. Not only did scores of Iraqi political leaders travel to Cairo to talk face to face in a manner that could not have happened in Baghdad, but the meeting was also attended by heads of state, including Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. After three days of talks, the attendees decided to convene a full-fledged peace conference in Cairo in late February or early March.

The significance of the meeting is that it brought together Shiite and Kurdish officials with leaders of various Sunni factions, including some of those with close ties to the Iraqi resistance. Waiting in the wings were people representing a spectrum of groups currently battling the U.S. occupation. According to Aiham al-Sammarae, who served in Iraq's 2003-2004 interim government, several leaders of insurgent groups went to Cairo to participate on the fringes of the meeting. Opposition from Iraq's main Shiite parties made it impossible for them to attend the conference itself, but that may be the next step. In a surprising statement after the conference, the attendees condemned terrorism but added that “resistance is a legitimate right of all peoples.” The conferees clearly intended to marginalize the forces associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq while encouraging opposition forces led by Iraqi nationalists, Baathists, and former military officers to join the talks.

The conference drew strong support from Russia, from the European Union, whose chief foreign affairs official, Javier Solana, helped organize it, and from the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also helped organize the meeting and sent Ashraf Qazi, his special representative, to the conference itself. The broad support from virtually all of the international community made the cool reception from the United States even more glaring.

In his AEI speech yesterday, Cheney did not even mention the Arab League conference. Instead, he threatened those who call for an American exit strategy with a straw man: the notion that Iraq will fall victim to the forces of Al Qaeda. “Would the United States and other free nations be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden, and Zawahiri in control of Iraq?” thundered Cheney. But as the Arab League meeting made clear, the opposition in Iraq -- and the resistance groups that Talabani says that he will now meet -- is not directed by Zarqawi and bin Laden. In fact, their forces represent only a tiny minority of the Iraqi insurgency, and foreign fighters comprise only about 4 percent of the Iraqi resistance. The real opposition is comprised of mainstream Sunnis, tribal leaders, ex-Baathists, and former army officers who went underground in April 2003. They are precisely the people with whom the United States needs to negotiate to end the war. By insisting on a “victory strategy,” the Bush-Cheney administration guarantees continued bloodshed and eventual U.S. defeat in Iraq. As former Senator Max Cleland, with reference to Vietnam, says, “I've seen that movie before. I know how it ends.”

Salah al-Mukhtar, a former Baathist who served as Iraq's ambassador to India, is one of the underground leaders of the resistance in exile. In a statement, Mukhtar offered to talk to the United States but not to the representatives of the Iraqi government alone, since many Baathists consider government officials -- not without justification -- to be American puppets. "The Baath Party will never talk to them," he said, according to The Washington Times, which reported that Mukhtar also said that the Baathists “would be willing, under certain conditions, to enter into talks with the real powers in Iraq: the U.S. and British forces.”

Since Bush and Cheney will not take up the offer of talks from Iraq's resistance groups, an offer endorsed not only by Sunni Arabs in Iraq but by President Talabani, a Kurd, it is up to others in the United States to join the effort. The increasingly large flock of repentant Democratic hawks, Republican “realists,” those on the liberal-left seeking an exit strategy, and others can all try to open a dialogue with Iraq's opposition. As Bush's stay-the-course rhetoric grows hoarser and hollower, an American majority can coalesce around the idea of Iraqi peace talks. The Arab League, the U.N., the EU, the Russians, and the Iraqis themselves will welcome the Americans aboard.

Robert Dreyfuss, a Prospect senior correspondent, is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. His web site is www.robertdreyfuss.com.

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