The surprising degree of consensus reached by the main Iraqi factions at the Arab League-orchestrated Reconciliation Conference in Cairo last weekend sharply undercuts the unilateral, guns-and-puppets approach of the Bush administration to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The common demand by Shia and Kurds as well as Sunnis for a timetable for withdrawal of occupation forces demolishes the administration’s argument that setting such a timetable would be a huge mistake. Who would know better – the Iraqis or the ideologues advising Bush?
Withdrawal of Occupation Forces
From the final communiqué:
We demand the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with a timetable, and the establishment of a national and immediate program for rebuilding the armed forces … that will allow them to guard Iraq’s borders and to get control of the security situation …
It is no accident that pride of place is given to the demand for withdrawal and that rebuilding the armed forces comes second. The Bush administration has insisted that it must be the other way around; i.e., that rebuilding the Iraqi army is precondition for withdrawal.
Also, no accident was the conference decision to differentiate sharply between “legitimate” resistance and terrorism, and to avoid condemning violence against occupation troops:
Though resistance is a legitimate right for all people, terrorism does not represent resistance. Therefore, we condemn terrorism and acts of violence, killing and kidnapping targeting Iraqi citizens and humanitarian, civil, government institutions, national resources and houses of worship.
For good measure, the final communiqué also demanded “an immediate end to arbitrary raids and arrests without a documented judicial order,” release of all “innocent detainees,” and investigation of “allegations of torture of prisoners.”
The communiqué’s feisty tone was facilitated by the conspicuous and unexplained absence of US representatives. By shunning the conference, administration officials missed the beginning of a process that has within it the seeds of real progress toward peace. In addition to over 100 Shia, Sunni and Kurdish participants, the conference was attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, but no US officials. The gathering was strongly supported not only by the Arab League but also by the UN, EU, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
All in all, the various Iraqi factions, including interim government officials, displayed unusual willingness to make the compromises necessary to reach consensus on key issues – like ending the occupation. Key Sunni leader Saleh Mutyla had set the tone shortly before the conference, even though the US chose that time to launch “Operation Steel Curtain,” the largest foray into Sunni territory this year. Mutyla nonetheless indicated that the resistance would agree to a ceasefire in exchange for US withdrawal.
Reaching Out to the Sunni
One main purpose of the Reconciliation Conference was to engage the Sunni parties in the political process, and several of the Sunni participants have close ties with nationalist Sunni insurgents. Agreement that resistance is a “legitimate right” and the decision not to apply the word “terrorism” to attacks on occupation forces were two significant olive branches held out to the Sunnis. In recognizing the right to resist the occupation, the conference severely undercut Bush administration attempts to paint Sunnis as Saddam loyalists or al-Qaeda collaborators. In contrast, the Sunnis were made to feel like full-fledged partners in this newly-begun search for a peaceful solution sans occupation.
Underscoring that point, Iraqi Interim President Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, made an unprecedented offer: “If those who describe themselves as Iraqi resistance want to contact me, they are welcome … I am committed to listen to them, even those who are criminals…”
… and from Washington? Pouting
The administration’s initial reaction seemed designed to put Talabani and other negotiation-welcoming Iraqi officials in their place. On Monday, addressing the issue of troop withdrawal, State department spokesperson Justin Higgins said: “Multinational forces are present in Iraq under a mandate from the UN Security Council. As President Bush has said, the coalition remains committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve security and stability as they rebuild their country. We will stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer.”
Tuesday, another State Department spokesperson sang the same mantra. She also gave lip service to US support for “the ongoing transitional political process in Iraq,” but offered no explanation as to why Secretary Condoleezza Rice decided not to send representatives to the conference in Cairo. Is she still taking instruction from what former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff calls the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal?”
With a full-fledged peace conference scheduled for February, and elections in mid-December, Washington has little time to waste if it wants to influence the peace process begun at the Reconciliation Conference in Cairo. The demand for the withdrawal of occupation troops creates an opening. But with the “cabal” and neo-conservative policymakers still in charge, and jittery Democrats only slowly seeing the light, it is doubtful that the administration will seize the opportunity – even though doing so would probably enhance Republican chances in next year’s mid-term elections.
This may change, however, because other pressures are mounting. America’s front-line Army and Marine battalion commanders in Iraq have gone behind Rumsfeld’s back to spill their guts to Senate Armed Forces Committee Chair John Warner. And Congressman John Murtha, retired Marine and a leading defense advocate on the Hill, has introduced a bill calling for troop withdrawal “as soon as practicable.”
Taken together, that initiative, the mini-mutiny among field-grade officers, and the outcome of the Cairo conference could conceivably break the Gordian knot in Congress. In calling for withdrawal, Murtha has made a critical bridge from the hawkish center to a majority of Americans and to progressives on the Hill.
A New Chapter? Maybe
These recent events could open up a new chapter in the history of this war. Iraqi politics, US public opinion and military necessity all argue for the US to lend its support to the national reconciliation process. Yet, even faced with such an obvious chance to climb out of the Iraq quagmire, there is still little sign that the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal will be able to veer from the prevailing predilection to self-destruct.
It remains sad fact that the president’s current advisors are the same ones who brought us Iraq – and for reasons other than those given. It will take very strong pressure to get them to relinquish their twin vision of permanent military bases in Iraq and predominant influence over what happens to the oil there. The president is not likely to argue with the ideologues around him, nor has he shown any willingness to broaden the circle of his advisors. The only realistic hope may lie in the chance those Republican congressional candidates who already have beads of sweat on their foreheads can break through the White House palace guard and argue persuasively against the increasingly obvious folly of “staying the course.”
Current Straws in the Wind
It is too early to tell whether there is any substance behind recent statements by senior US officials expressing hope that US forces can be withdrawn sooner rather than later. The only straw in the wind with possible substance seems to be the unexplained delay in deploying the 1st infantry division brigade from Fort Riley that was earlier earmarked for arrival in Iraq before the December 15 election.
For all intents and purposes, the administration position remains the same. Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, keeps warning of the consequences of a “precipitous pull-out,” repeating: “I’m not going to get into a timetable. It will be driven by conditions on the ground.”
But, you say, Secretary Rice told FOX news on Tuesday “those days are going to be coming fairly soon when Iraqis are going to be more and more capable of carrying out the functions to secure their own future.” Is there not hope to be found in this? Might this be PR preparation for a drawdown sooner than foreshadowed in earlier, more rigid statements?
Not necessarily. By all indications, Rice continues to take orders from the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal. She is as weak a secretary of state as her predecessor. Even if she let herself be persuaded by seasoned professionals at State that, in present circumstances, she ought to be pressing for a troop drawdown driven by bargaining at the negotiating table rather than “conditions on the ground,” she would almost certainly feel it necessary to get permission from the cabal before taking this novel idea to the president. She would probably even have to get them to sign off on any plan to send official representatives to the February meeting in Cairo, should she come to realize that it makes sense for the US to insert itself into the emerging political process with Iraqi and other key players.
As for Rumsfeld’s relatively optimistic spin on recent talk shows, there is little to suggest that this has any purpose other than to assuage growing pro-withdrawal sentiment in Congress and the population at large.
Ray McGovern is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years, and now works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. An earlier version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com.