Desperate times

May 15, 2007

The Bush administration's decision to talk to Iran about the deplorable conditions in Iraq reinforces what many have said for some time now - there is no military solution to the war there. But the influence of the Iranians, if they cooperate, could prove pivotal in two critical areas: insurgent attacks on American forces and sectarian violence by Shiite militias.

That these are desperate times in Iraq was evident yesterday as U.S. forces, 4,000 strong, swept through an area south of Baghdad searching for three American soldiers who were kidnapped over the weekend after an insurgent strike on their Humvees killed four other U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi soldier. A group with apparent links to al-Qaida that purportedly carried out the attack taunted U.S. forces yesterday with its prediction that their search would be fruitless.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while traveling in Moscow on Monday, explained the occasion for the U.S.-Iranian talks, saying the "timing" was right. If that's the cover the administration needs to forsake its foolish refusal to participate in such talks, so be it. But the continuing tug-of-war between Congress and the White House over an Iraq spending bill and an eventual pullout of U.S. forces surely has contributed to the "timing" of its decision.

What's critical now is for both sides to foster an atmosphere conducive to substantive and deliberate discussions between U.S. and Iranian diplomats. Vice President Dick Cheney's bluster about Iran's nuclear ambitions during his trip to the region last week should be viewed as what it was - the administration's bad cop on message. Mr. Cheney needs to get some new speech material because his threats provoke the same harsh rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The tone on both sides is counterproductive as the Bush administration belatedly accepts the idea of engaging the Iranians on Iraq.

This engagement is important because Iran's intervention could help reduce the traffic of sophisticated explosive devices used against American soldiers and deter violence between Sunnis and Shiites, with whom they share religious affiliation. If both of those could be tamped down, the U.S. military might have a better chance of routing insurgent forces over the coming months. That could provide some stability to Iraqis and, more to the point, an exit strategy for the United States.

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