The point of no return has been reached in Iraq
America's agile envoy in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, is working these days to cajole Iraqi political leaders to put aside narrow interests in favor of a government of national unity. But behind the political dickering lies a stark message: If the Iraqis can't agree on a broad-based government of reconciliation, the United States may have to reduce its military and economic support. America won't bankroll one side in a civil war.
I spoke with Khalilzad by telephone this week about his efforts to coax a compromise from the Iraqis. By most accounts, the Afghan-born diplomat has been a brilliant ringmaster of the Baghdad political circus. But even he can't soften the dilemma facing the Iraqis: They either find a way to work together or the fragile Iraqi state will begin to unravel.
The American envoy is deploying a weapon the U.S. hasn't used much in Iraq - the word "no." He said he is arguing that the new government must give the two security ministries - Interior and Defense - to people who have broad national support and aren't linked to sectarian militias. Otherwise, America may have to adjust its massive effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces.
"The security ministries have to be run by people who are not associated with militias and who are not regarded as sectarian," Khalilzad told me. "The issue is how forces that we're investing a huge amount of money in are perceived by the Iraqis. If they are perceived as sectarian, their effectiveness will not be there. We have insisted on this, stated it clearly. These two ministries need people who are acceptable to all parties of a national unity government ... We are saying: If you choose the wrong candidates, that will affect U.S. aid."
Khalilzad's message is aimed largely at Abdel-Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Shiite religious coalition that won the largest number of votes in December's elections. The current interior minister is a close ally of Hakim's and a former leader of the Shiite militia known as the Badr Brigade. U.S. officials believe that under his control, the Interior Ministry has condoned torture of Sunni prisoners and increasingly used the police to settle sectarian scores. That must stop, argue the Americans.
U.S. officials see Iraq at a decisive turning point following December's elections to choose a permanent government. They had hoped the balloting would open the way for a secular coalition that might bridge the bitter divisions among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Instead, the balloting reinforced those sectarian tendencies. Iraqis voted their fears, and the us-or-them logic of sectarian conflict. Religious and ethnic parties that maintain strong militias did well; secular parties that support national institutions did poorly.
"We've reached a point of no return now," argues Raad Alkadiri, an Anglo-Iraqi who advised the British government in Baghdad during the first year of occupation and is now a consultant with PFC Energy in Washington. "Are Iraqis willing to put aside their narrow interests? Is there a real Iraqi state? You can't fudge this. This is the edge of the precipice."
Khalilzad is telling Shiite and Kurdish leaders that they have a golden opportunity now to stabilize the country because of a sharp split that is emerging within the Sunni insurgency. Sunni tribal and political leaders who had been backing the insurgency are increasingly angry at the terrorist tactics of Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That opens the way for a deal - if the Shiites and Kurds want one. "The tectonics are shifting in the Sunni heartland," Khalilzad told me. "A fault line is developing that is going to expand, between Zarqawi and his allies and elements of the insurgency."
If the Iraqis can reach across the sectarian chasm, it could mark the beginning of a virtuous cycle in Iraq that could finally bring a measure of stability and prosperity. Khalilzad has been talking with Iraqi leaders about a "First 100 Days" program that would get the new government off to a fast start. He has discussed creating a National Security Council that would hammer out consensus within a small leadership group. He is talking with Iraqi leaders about a national Bill of Assurances that would address the anxieties of each sect. But all these good steps require a basic willingness to compromise, bury the hatchet and bring in the Sunnis.
Khalilzad's message is that America's money and patience aren't unlimited. If the Iraqis can come together to build a framework for cooperation, America stands with them. If they can't pull together, they will eventually have to face the nightmare of a shattered Iraq on their own. Ironically, that's America's hidden leverage in Iraq - the power to walk away.
Syndicated columnist David Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.