For a change, don't bet on pessimism in Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 17-Mar-06 | Author: David Ignatius| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani, left, look on as Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, chief of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, center, talks with leader of the largest Sunni bloc Adnan al-Dulaimi during a meeting at the house of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, unseen, in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, March 15, 2006.

There has been so much bad news out of Iraq lately that you have to pinch yourself when good things seem to be happening. But there are unmistakable signs this week that Iraq's political leaders are taking the first tentative steps toward forming a broad government of national unity that could reverse the country's downward slide.

What has brought Iraq's political factions together is the crisis that followed the February 22 bombing of the Samarra mosque, which raised the danger that Iraq might tumble into a full-scale civil war. The country's political leaders seemed to realize, as they stood at the brink, that they would either come together or Iraq would fall apart. So far, they seem to be choosing unity - or at least, serious talks about unity.

The venue has been a series of meetings this week that have included all of the country's major political factions. This conclave was proposed a week ago by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. His idea was that the political leaders should all gather, in rural Iraq or perhaps at a Baghdad hotel, and keep meeting until they hammered out a new government.

The factional leaders promptly endorsed these "make-or-break" negotiations, though they decided to meet on each other's turf. The first meeting of about two dozen political leaders and aides took place last Sunday at the Baghdad headquarters of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, followed by a Tuesday session at the headquarters of Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Hakim and a Wednesday gathering at the house of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Khalilzad has attended all of the sessions and has played a role like that of a mediator in a labor dispute.

Khalilzad told me in an interview in his office after Wednesday's session that the talks had produced tentative agreement on two basic points: First, the parties endorsed the idea of a unity government that would include all the major factions. Second, they agreed that this government should have a top-level "national security commission" that would include representatives of all the major political parties. Operating by consensus, this body would frame the broad outlines of policy, subject to the Iraqi Constitution.

This week's dialogue broke the deadlock over the composition of the coalition. A month ago, radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was refusing to endorse any government that included the party of Iyad Allawi, a close ally of the United States who, as interim prime minister, had ordered a military strike against Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. Khalilzad said Wednesday that the logjam was broken "because people realized that if one side has red lines, all sides will have red lines." He said of this week's gatherings: "These are the best meetings of Iraqis I've seen since I've been here."

The U.S. ambassador's upbeat account is believable because it is echoed by Iraqi political leaders. Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's vice president and a representative of Hakim and his powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told me Wednesday: "We have a common understanding on major issues - on the need for consensus and on a national security commission. What makes me confident is that I think we are building up a sense of understanding among different communities."

He added that the message of the new government must be: "No one is outside of the law, whether the Badr Organization (SCIRI's militia), the Mahdi Army or the insurgency."

One seeming obstacle to unity has been fear about the role of Iran. To finesse that issue, Hakim said he is urging Iran to talk with the United States about Iraq's political future. Khalilzad himself has been quietly exploring what he calls the "modalities" for such U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq.

One hint of the new spirit of accord (and also of the political jockeying taking place) emerged when I visited Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite politician who has allied himself over the past year with Sadr and with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. With Chalabi Wednesday was Sheikh Khalaf al-Aian Khalaf, one of the leaders of the largest Sunni party. Chalabi seems to be seeking Sunni political allies, believing that they will be a crucial part of the next government. He also believes that Sunni tribal leaders such as Khalaf are working to stop the Al-Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The Iraqi political dialogue will move into a new and potentially fractious stage soon, when the leaders begin bargaining over who will hold top positions in the new government. Those negotiations could blow apart the fragile hopes for a unity government. But, for a change, pessimism isn't necessarily the right bet for Iraq.

Syndicated columnist David Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.