Throughout December, in a political offensive designed to recapture the initiative over the failing war in Iraq, President Bush portrayed the battle there in stark terms. Iraq, he said, is the central front in a global struggle against “Islamofascism,” against an enemy whose intent is to create a radical, worldwide caliphate comparable to the Nazi enemy the United States fought in World War II or the communist foe that competed with America in (the Cold) World War III. In so doing, the president aligned himself with the hardest of America's hard-liners, such as former CIA Director James Woolsey and Commentary's Norman Podhoretz, who insist that the war in Iraq is part of some mythical World War IV. And in that war, President Bush asserted, the choice America faces in Iraq is either “victory or defeat.”
But in fact, the war against the “evil caliphate” exists only in Bush's mind. In the real Iraq, the war pits U.S. forces and the nascent Iraqi government against a persistent insurgency led not by al-Qaeda partisans -- who represent a small, and dwindling, part of the opposition -- but by a constellation of former Iraqi Baathists, ex-military commanders, and Sunni tribal leaders. And in that battle, the choice is not one between total victory and utter defeat. A third option exists: a negotiated settlement between the United States and the Iraqi resistance that would allow the United States to exit gracefully, leaving behind a relatively stable and united country.
Despite tantalizing openings -- including months of behind-the-scenes contacts between U.S. military officers, CIA officials, and representatives of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad with various resistance leaders -- no senior official in Washington has declared a willingness to negotiate with the Baathist-military resistance. But negotiations, though nearly unmentioned by most U.S. media, have been ongoing. The Arab League has been leading a regional diplomatic effort to start talks with the resistance, several key Iraqi figures are involved in an effort to organize a dialogue with the insurgents, and former leaders of the Baath Party say they are willing to talk.
“There is a whole rainbow of armed groups, including organizations that are tired of fighting and want to make a deal,” says Wayne White, who led the State Department's intelligence unit on Iraq until 2005. “The only way wars end is when you talk to the enemy.” Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state and a leader of the Progressive Caucus in the House who traveled to Jordan last year to meet former Iraqi officials in Amman, agrees that it is long past time for the United States to open formal talks with the resistance in Iraq. “We fought our way in, but we've got to talk our way out,” he says.
What would such a negotiated settlement look like? In broad outlines, a deal with the resistance would include a cease-fire, a halt to U.S. offensive operations in western Iraq, a timetable for the complete withdrawal of American forces, an agreement by the resistance to take part in the Iraqi government, and joint efforts to mop up remnants of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq organization. The biggest obstacle to such a deal is not the resistance itself -- which, though it would likely support such a deal, is a fractious, amorphous force without clear leaders or spokesmen -- but the coalition of hard-line Shiite religious parties who control the government in Baghdad. With tens of thousands of private, party-linked militiamen under arms, supplied and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, with a deadly network of Shiite-led death squads and torture prisons, and with control over much of the new Iraqi armed forces and Interior Ministry police units, the two dominant Shiite parties are adamantly opposed to including former Baathists in the government or the army. And they oppose even their inclusion in the parliament as an opposition force.
Over the past few weeks, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has opened the door to talk to the resistance. “We want to deal with their legitimate concerns,” he told Time in December. “We will intensify the engagement, interaction, and discussion with them.” Khalilzad also made an important distinction between Zarqawi's terrorists and the “nationalists” among the resistance: “The fault line between Al Qaeda and the nationalists seems to have increased,” he said. “Insurgency and terror are two different things. ... There is a reaching out to non-criminal Baathists. ... The time has come to reintegrate them into the political process.”
Khalilzad's comments rekindled a faint hope that the diplomatic process begun in November by the Arab League might bear fruit. That process had largely stalled. The Arab League's effort began in late fall, when the two king Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia expressed fears that Iraq might slip into a full-scale civil war that could spill across Iraq's borders. The original intent of the league, which called a conference in Cairo to bring together all of Iraq's factions, was to open a dialogue between the resistance and the Shiite-Kurdish bloc. However, the Shiites, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the religious Dawa Party and by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said that they would not attend the Cairo conference if Baathists and resistance leaders were there. So the meeting mostly failed to bridge any divides, although the final statement produced by the Cairo parties at least declared that “resistance is a legitimate right of all peoples.”
To similar ends, Aiham al-Sammarae, a former minister in the Iraqi interim government, has spent much of the past year trying to foster a dialogue between the non-Zarqawi resistance and the United States, so far to no avail. Before Cairo, Sammarae had organized a delegation of resistance leaders to go to Cairo with him, but when Jaafari refused to meet the group, Sammarae and his delegation stayed home. “Ever since Cairo, to the best of my knowledge nobody is talking with the Baathists, nobody is talking with the resistance,” Sammarae told the Prospect by phone from Baghdad. “There are some talks in the field, but there are no central talks run by the ambassador or by people on behalf of the secretary of state. They are talking with some Sunni groups, and the ambassador meets some Sunni groups to deliver messages, but he's not negotiating.”
A leading Baathist said the same thing. Salah al-Mukhtar, a long-time Baath Party official who served as ambassador to India and Vietnam, told the Prospect that Baathists are ready to sit down with the United States. “In any war or major crisis negotiation is the natural eventuality if the two parties of the conflict are willing to put an end to it by peaceful means,” says Mukhtar, who is currently in Yemen and who has close ties to resistance leaders. “The only way out of the deadly situation in Iraq is to negotiate with the Baath Party and resistance leadership, and not any other party.” But, like Sammarae, Mukhtar says that so far Khalilzad has not contacted any resistance leader directly. “The American ambassador has said that he is trying to contact the insurgency, but he didn't say he has succeeded in opening a door with it.”
In fact, no senior U.S. official went to Cairo for the Arab League's meeting, even though the presidents of Egypt and Algeria, the foreign minister of Iran, key Arab diplomats, the foreign relations chief for the European Union, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's representative attended. In late February, the league had been planning a follow-up conference in Baghdad, but the victory of the hard-line, theocratic Shiite parties led by SCIRI, Dawa, and Muqtada al-Sadr's fanatical Mahdi Army in the December 15 elections have made that uncertain. For the most part, none of those parties want to talk to the resistance.
For Democrats and those few Republicans caught between advocating an immediate pullout and President Bush's “stay the course” view, the idea of a negotiated peace settlement in Iraq tied to a U.S. withdrawal ought to be an attractive one. McDermott, whose thinking on Iraq is light-years beyond that of most party officials, suggests that by supporting UN- or Arab League-sponsored talks, the United States could extricate itself from Iraq while avoiding a civil war. “I'd encourage the Iraqis to convene an atwa,” he says, using an Arabic word for an age-old dispute resolution mechanism. In Amman, late last summer, McDermott met with Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Iraqis -- “some of them must have been former Baath party members,” he says -- and the discussions convinced him that an accord tied to U.S. withdrawal is possible. But, he insists, such an effort “can't have an American imprint on it.”
It will be weeks before Iraq's factions agree on a government coalition, but one thing is certain: Whatever they agree on, the insurgency will not abate. (The war, said General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, “will ultimately be settled by negotiation and inclusion in the political process. It will not be settled on the battlefield.”) The president can proclaim his “strategy for victory,” but the only realistic options are either a negotiated settlement that satisfies all parties -- or, if that can't be pulled off, a hasty U.S. retreat as Iraq breaks up into sectarian statelets. And ironically, after the expense of so much U.S. blood and treasure, one of those statelets is likely to be a Shiite theocracy allied to Iran, installed courtesy of U.S. taxpayers and, at latest count, 2,200 dead U.S. troops.
Robert Dreyfuss is a Prospect senior correspondent.