Talk might be a key for an exit from Iraq

Endgame: Negotiating a wedge between insurgents is seen by many as a better strategy to get out.

July 03, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Whether or not Iraq is a 21st-century America's equivalent of Vietnam, soldiers in the Mideast today face the same battle those in Indochina waged a generation ago - for the hearts and minds of the people of a foreign land which has been invaded and occupied or liberated and protected, depending on your point of view.

Though President Bush emphasized military might and aggression against the terrorists in his talk to an attentive - and silent - gathering of the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina last week, the key to victory going forward might lie in a different forum - talking, not fighting.

For months, there have been reports of talks between U.S. representatives and Sunni leaders who, if they are not directing the insurgency, but are not actively opposing it. The latest came a week ago in The Sunday Times of London which characterized them as full-scale negotiations with insurgent groups.

In a news briefing last week, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., did not explicitly deny that report, but said that the talks were not with insurgents, but with Sunni leadership. And they were not negotiations, just informal talks.

Whatever the appropriate semantics, such talks might open the door to a possible way out of the Iraq conundrum. The key is that the United States and its Iraqi allies must drive a wedge between the two main branches of the insurgency - the mainly Sunni Iraqis who are fighting for political reasons and the mainly foreign Islamic radicals who see this as a religious struggle.

"Some of the people Bush is calling terrorists see themselves as patriots who are fighting for the independence of their country," says Rashid Khalidi of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. "Others are in a completely different category.

"The point is not to drive those people and the Iraqi nationalists together, but to separate them. Bush's policies have pushed them together. He's creating terrorists out of patriots."

Lee Strickland, director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, says driving a wedge between these two groups is essential to the United States reaching the endgame in Iraq.

"Hopefully we are driving that wedge, driving the more mainstream members of the insurgency into the political process," says Strickland who spent 30 years at the CIA before joining the University of Maryland.

Certainly, there are politically motivated members of the insurgency who are not going to be satisfied with any new dispensation in Iraq, still-loyal followers of Saddam Hussein who are fighting to regain power.

But most think many of the insurgents are Iraqis - mainly Sunnis who once controlled the country - who are fighting for a place at the table in the new Iraq, and a guarantee that the new country will be truly independent.

As important - or more important - as those doing the fighting are those supporting the insurgents, actively or tacitly.

"It is important to realize that running an insurgency does require some degree of public support," Strickland says.

Military action will probably not dry up that support. Khalidi contends that it may enhance it, that insurgents are supported by those rounded up and jailed by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, or the families and friends of those killed at coalition roadblocks.

Strickland points out the parallel to Northern Ireland where the majority of the Catholic population might not have backed the acts of the Irish Republican Army, but were not about to turn them into the British during decades of police actions and arrests and marches and demonstrations.

"It was largely through politics and economics that the leadership was able to drive a wedge between the great majority of the Irish people and the extremists who wanted to kill people," he says.

"You have to drive that wedge so that the terrorists cannot operate freely in their environment, amid people who are not turning them in, who are giving them sanctuary, giving them the luxury of freely roaming around the country," Strickland says.

In large swaths of Iraq that is exactly the situation the insurgents enjoy.

If those people instead can be convinced to throw their lot in with the political process, then there is a greater likelihood that the foreign insurgents can be isolated and defeated.

No one thinks this will be a smooth process. "There are all kinds of ugly strains in that mix," Khalidi says. "There may be chauvinists and bigots and hard-core members of the old regime."

Bringing them into the process might not be pretty, but it would not be as ugly as the car bombings and roadside bombs and ambushes that now wrack the country.

Khalidi says the main obstacle to getting these groups into the process is the refusal of the United States to pledge that it has no plans for a permanent military presence in Iraq.

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