Over dinner in a quiet corner of a restaurant in Washington, D.C., a few months ago, a leading Iraqi activist and politician laid out a hopeful plan that, in his view, is the only viable political solution to Iraq's civil war: a new coalition to replace the failed, sectarian regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a nationalist, Sunni-Shia alliance. The Iraqi, on a brief Washington visit, is deeply involved in efforts to create a broad-based alliance within Iraqi politics that could oust Maliki. "We have a detailed plan," he said.
Many Iraqis, representing a wide range of Iraqi parties -- moderate and secular Sunni and Shia, Sunni religious parties, supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the dissident Shia Fadhila party, the Sunni resistance-linked Association of Muslim Scholars, much of Iraq's armed, Sunni-led resistance, and various independents -- are working toward this goal, he said.
In fits and starts, and under the worst possible conditions -- literally under fire -- a wide spectrum of Iraqi political leaders is looking for a way out of the ethnic and sectarian crisis. It is an effort that has been underway for nearly a year. But they are doing so not only without American support, but against the determined opposition of the Bush administration.
In March, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, I asked David Satterfield, the State Department's top Iraq official, if the administration had given any consideration to the idea of a new political alliance that might replace Maliki. Satterfield shot it down, in the strongest terms. "We strongly, explicitly support the government of Prime Minister Maliki," he said, through a clenched jaw, and looking me in the eye. "It is not helpful to talk about alternatives."
But for most Iraqis, the vast majority of whom oppose the U.S. occupation, an alternative to Maliki is foremost on their minds. Moreover, on May 10 a majority of the Iraqi parliament supported a resolution calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, reflecting a growing consensus among the Iraqi public and the political class. That resolution reveals the political glue that could hold together a new governing bloc in Baghdad. No one knows, at this stage, whether that glue -- namely, opposition to the U.S. role in Iraq -- is strong enough to overcome the enormous difficulties inherent in uniting, say, Sadr and secular-minded Sunnis. On the other hand, it is safe to say that no Iraqi government that supports an open-ended U.S. occupation will have a prayer of getting Iraqi public support.
As Zbigniew Brzezinksi told a private gathering in Washington last week, the Iraqis who want the United States to stay are the ones who will have to leave when the United States goes. "Most of those within the Green Zone will be leaving with us," he said.
And it isn't only the U.S. occupation that unites the opposition to Maliki. In addition, the anti-Maliki forces are fierce nationalists who oppose the separatist, break-up-Iraq views of Maliki's strongest allies. Inside Iraq, the core of Maliki's support is made up of the Kurds, SCIRI, and, of course, his own Dawa party. The Kurds and SCIRI -- which has recently renamed itself SIIC, or Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council -- have made a devil's pact to support each other's separatist efforts: the Kurds, who want an independent Kurdistan, are willing to deal with SCIRI, which supports a semi-independent Shia south, and vice versa. But the anti-Maliki forces vigorously support Iraq's unity. And they, including Sadr, oppose efforts by Iran to win hegemonic influence in post-Saddam Iraq.
Last February, Representative Jim McDermott of Washington organized an extraordinary Capitol Hill event. By teleconference, McDermott brought five Iraqi members of the 275-member parliament together with a dozen or so members of Congress to discuss the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations. All five Iraqi parliamentarians called for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, along with urgent steps to help end the civil war, restore Iraq's old army, accommodate the dissolved Baath party, and rebuild the shattered economy. The most important participant in the event from the Iraqi side was Nadim al-Jaberi, a member of parliament and co-founder of the Fadhila party, potentially a lynchpin of an anti-Maliki alliance.
Earlier this year, Fadhila -- a Sadrist movement strong in Basra and Iraq's south -- pulled out of Maliki's ruling United Iraqi Alliance. Since then, both Fadhila and Sadr's own party have been discussing a new political alignment with the Sunnis called a "National Salvation Front." Many of the potential participants in that front also took part in McDermott's video hookup, including the National Dialogue Front (11 seats), which was represented by Saleh Mutlaq; the Iraqi Accord Front (44 seats), which represents religious Sunnis; and the Iraqi National List, led by Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister (25 seats).
Despite McDermott's efforts, the idea is getting no support whatsoever from the Bush administration, and it has been utterly ignored by leading Democrats in Congress, including the party's would-be 2008 standard-bearers. Two weeks ago, I spent several hours with Mohammed al-Daini, a member of the parliament, who was visiting Washington. "The Maliki government is part of the problem, not part of the solution," he said. "The first step is for the United States to stop supporting the Maliki government, which is a government of sectarianism and death squads. The second step is to set a timetable for withdrawal." But Daini, who managed to meet with members of Congress, could get no higher in his talks with the Bush administration than a pro forma meeting with the State Department's Iraq desk officer.
Meanwhile, Sadr, who recently resurfaced in Iraq after months in hiding, is aggressively reaching out to Sunnis. The mercurial cleric, scion of one of Iraq's blue-blood Shia religious clans, is the country's most powerful politician. Since May, Sadr has launched a public initiative to open talks with nearly all of Iraq's Sunni factions, including the armed resistance. He has called for a quick end to the U.S. occupation, positioning himself as a nationalist who can speak for all Iraqis. He's sent emissaries to visit Sunni religious leaders in Egypt, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia, which has great influence among Iraqi Sunni tribes and clerics. And he has denounced Iran for its refusal, in its May 25 talks with the United States, to demand that the United States leave Iraq. "It is most regrettable that they [the Iranians} are inadvertently or deliberately forgetting, in such negotiations, to demand that the occupier depart," said Sadr.
"When you weaken Iran's influence in Iraq, it will also weaken Maliki's government." Daini told me. "The Maliki government is using Iranian intelligence to get rid of its opponents." Indeed, many Iraqi leaders, especially the Sunni Arabs, were alarmed by the May 25 U.S.-Iran talks, fearing an American deal with Iran to carve up Iraq. Following the U.S.-Iran meeting, the Baath party of Iraq -- which plays a key role in support of the armed resistance -- warned that the United States and Iran are determined to eliminate Iraq's "Arab identity," adding: "The U.S.-Iranian alliance is the number one enemy of Iraq and of the Arab nation."
Among Sadr's potential allies are Mutlaq's bloc, the larger Iraqi Accord Front (which includes Sunni religious parties, such as the Iraqi Islamic Party), and Allawi's secular Iraqi National List. Allawi, a secular Shia, has been actively seeking a leadership role in a coalition to replace Maliki, too. He has been busily courting Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and last week, in Amman, Jordan, his party held a national conference that tried, and failed, to win support for a broad national front in Iraq. One of the most intriguing efforts by Allawi has been his dialogue with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region. In March, Barzani -- who is less closely wedded to Iran and to Hakim's SCIRI than his Kurdish confrere, President Jalal Talabani -- visited Saudi Arabia at the same time as Allawi, giving rise to speculation that Allawi and Barzani were discussing a move against Maliki. At the time, Barzani's spokesman said that the two men had met in Kurdistan before traveling to Saudi Arabia to discuss a "national front to take over for the political bloc now supporting al-Maliki."
Efforts are ongoing. On June 3, Salah Mutlaq, the former Baathist and leader of the National Dialogue Front, said that he had renewed talks to form an anti-Maliki front in Baghdad. "We have been engaged in constructive talks to create this powerful bloc to save Iraq," said Mutlaq. "Maliki's government should go because it has brought untold suffering to the Iraqi people."
There is no sign that the Bush administration has any interest in the emerging anti-Maliki alliance in Iraqi politics. Instead, the White House and the Pentagon are concentrating on the so-called "surge," despite accumulating evidence that it is an utter failure. In the end, if and when the United States reconciles itself to a withdrawal from Iraq, the path to stability will be found in a nationalist government constituting most or all of the emerging "national salvation" coalition. It's possible that the team of so-called realists now in control of U.S. foreign policy can come to that understanding on their own. Or perhaps they’ll need to be pushed, and hard, by the Democrats in Congress and on the '08 presidential campaign trail.
But with each passing day, as sectarian violence grows, it will be more and more difficult to make that happen. Americans need to begin understanding that the end of the Maliki government and the start of a U.S. withdrawal are one and the same thing.