A glimmer of hope for Iraq

March 06, 2007|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- What's been absent so long in Iraq is a sense of possibility - the possibility that things could improve.

Last week, something happened that offers at least a chance of changing Iraq's deadly dynamics. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would participate in two meetings organized by senior Iraqi officials that will be attended by all of Iraq's neighbors - including Iran and Syria. The first meeting will take place in Baghdad on Saturday.

Why is this so important? Almost everyone, including top U.S. officials and military commanders, knows that force alone cannot end the violence in Baghdad. Iraq's neighbors - Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states - have meddled in the sectarian war that is destroying Iraq and threatens to infect the whole region.

Only intense regional diplomacy with strong U.S. backing can persuade Iran and Arab states to help Iraq rather than fuel the fighting. But diplomacy won't work unless two of the key players have direct contacts. I refer, of course, to the United States and Iran.

It's not yet clear whether the meeting in Baghdad will set the stage for such contacts. There is at least the possibility, however, that these talks might lead to more serious U.S.-Iranian contacts.

True, there has been much recent U.S. saber rattling at Iran, including remarks by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Yet some senior U.S. officials suggest the pressure on Iran is aimed at helping the United States to negotiate from a position of strength at a time when Tehran sees America as weakened by the chaos in Iraq.

Another hopeful sign is the central role Iraq played in organizing the meetings. Iraq's talented foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, worked tirelessly to get delegates from neighboring countries to meet in Baghdad to discuss stabilizing his country. In a phone interview from Sweden, he told me: "This is an opening to ease regional tensions and show that Iraq can help its neighboring countries."

Iraqi officials have traveled the region, warning Tehran that the Iraqi government doesn't want Iranians to fight their battles with the United States on Iraqi soil. They've told Egyptian and Saudi officials that if they're nervous about the expanding influence of Shiite Persians, they should help strengthen the Iraqi government.

Mr. Zebari made clear his goal for this week's session: to get Iraq's neighbors "to commit to security cooperation with Baghdad." This means that instead of helping Sunni or Shiite militias, the neighbors should cooperate with the central government of Iraq.

Baghdad cannot go it alone. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak, and the Iraqi government often doesn't talk with one voice. Iran fears Sunni Arab leaders want to facilitate a Sunni restoration in Iraq; Saudi Arabia fears expanding Iranian power. It will take very skilled diplomacy to find a regional formula to allay these fears and prevent a wider religious war. Despite the presence at the talks of diplomats from the United Nations, the Arab League, China, Russia and Europe, the key will be U.S. intentions.

This is the moment of truth: Does the U.S. want a change of behavior in Tehran, or a change of regime? If the latter, no regional formula for stabilizing Iraq can be found. If the former, U.S. officials must find a way to talk directly to Iranians. These talks could be held on a separate track from U.N. efforts to deal with Iran's nuclear program.

The Baghdad talks provide the opening for such a dialogue.

Now is the moment when the president must decide whether he truly wants to pursue regional diplomacy to save Iraq.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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