When all else fails

May 02, 2004

THE SEIGE of Fallujah has become the story of Iraq, writ small - an emblematic morality tale.

Here was a place that spelled trouble. Something had to be done to clear it out. So the U.S. Marines hit it with force; no one paused to consider the implications. The operation was less than a brilliant success, not on military terms but on political ones. Startled by the anger of ordinary people, the American authorities began casting about for a solution.

They turned, both in Fallujah and in Iraq as a whole, to people who were once part of the problem. In Fallujah, it was a one-time Republican Guard general, resplendent in his old uniform, brought out of involuntary retirement as the head of a suddenly constituted new brigade. He rode into the center of the city Friday, to the cheers of the mob, and announced that the Americans wouldn't be needed. The Marines, though itching for a fight, pulled back.

In the bigger picture, the United States has turned to U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to find a political solution that has eluded American minds. Where once it was the timidity and temporizing of the United Nations that made the American attack on Iraq necessary, now it is the diplomatic ingenuity of the world body that may save U.S. policy in Iraq from an outright disaster.

So, in league with pinstriped U.N. do-gooders and dark-mustachioed Republican Guard generals, the Bush administration hopes it has at last found a way to impose its will on Iraq. (In Najaf, meanwhile, the United States has been cautiously optimistic that Iran can use its influence to help dampen the rebellion of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Yes, that Iran.)

The obstacles to success are formidable. . But there are encouraging signs that the U.S. administrators, although still unable to admit mistakes, are at least finally acknowledging the complexity of the task they face. They're even bringing Baathists back into positions of power.

If neither Fallujah nor Najaf erupts, the big challenge will be the immutable yet impossible June 30 deadline for the transfer of sovereignty. This is where Mr. Brahimi comes in.

The United Nations is not a beloved institution in Iraq, and Mr. Brahimi, a Sunni, is viewed with suspicion by some of the Shiite majority. His idea of appointing a nonpartisan government, and afterward a quasi-legislative body to ratify its existence, seems somewhat backward but could conceivably be ingenious. June 30 clearly won't be about sovereignty, but it could still mark a significant political transition.

All that, however, assumes that the next nine weeks are relatively quiet. People in Fallujah were acting as if they had forced the Americans to back down - in a fight the United States had picked. American forebearance was, in the end, a good thing. But by now the most enlightened of policies in Iraq may still be too little, too late.

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