Bush seeks foes’ help in Iraq

To avoid failure of its mission in Iraq, the Bush administration has been driven to seek the help of two major enemies — the Sunni insurgents and the government of Iran — but both initiatives have failed to make progress because officials were not given any real negotiating authority.

US officials in Baghdad are now pursuing contacts with both declared enemies, with the aim of obtaining their cooperation in overcoming otherwise seemingly insurmountable obstacles to success in Iraq. In both cases, however, the White House has been unwilling to approve concessions required to reach a deal benefiting both sides.

Administration policymakers have apparently recognised that, without the help of Iran and the Sunni insurgent leaders, it faces the likelihood of spiralling sectarian violence, undiminished Sunni armed resistance, al Qaeda terrorist havens and predominant Iranian political influence. Some US officials came to realise in 2005 that US policy was leading to consequences that contradicted its larger interests. Its main Iraqi allies, the militant Shiite parties, were aligned with its main enemy, Iran, while US forces were fighting against Sunni insurgent organisations whose longer term interests lay in opposing both al Qaeda and Iran.

Iran held a strong and possibly decisive influence in Iraq because of its close ties with militant Shiite political-military groups. The extent of that influence was driven home last July when Iraq’s Shiite Defence Minister Saadoun Dulaim, on a visit to the Iranian capital, discussed possible military cooperation between the two countries, only to back away under US pressure.

But US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recognised that it might be necessary to use Iran’s influence to induce more moderate behaviour by the Shiite parties. Meanwhile, US officials figured out, belatedly, that Sunni insurgent organisations could actually help advance US interests in eliminating terrorist havens in Iraq, as well as limiting Iranian influence. Furthermore, like the Sunni political leaders who ran in the December parliamentary elections, the leaders of Sunni insurgent groups are strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. Thus, the Sunnis fighting against the occupation actually represented potential allies.

The implication of the present US diplomatic policy is that the White House feels it can still coerce the Iranians to do their bidding on Iraq. The Iranian government, however, clearly believes it holds the stronger bargaining chips in dealing with the US, despite continuing US military threats, because of the seriousness of the situation in Iraq. On Jan. 14, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad declared that the US deals with Iran “in a very harsh and illegal language, but ultimately they need us more than we need them”. This was apparently a reference to the US need for Iran to help stabilise Iraq.

US overtures to the Sunni insurgents have suffered from a similar lack of decisiveness. The message being conveyed to those groups, according to one insurgent leader, is that Washington wanted their help in the fight against al Qaeda. Despite its need for the cooperation of Sunni insurgents and Iran, the White House has not yet accepted the reality that it cannot simply command such cooperation. Given this contradiction, further “adjustments” in US strategy must eventually be forthcoming. — IPS