Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The future of coalition in Iraq

Amir Taheri, Gulf News:
If all goes well a contact team working for Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki will soon meet a delegation of clerics and former military men representing the Arab Sunni insurgency.

On the agenda will be an end to the insurgency in exchange for a package of promises by the government, including partial amnesty for the armed rebels. READ MORE

Al Maliki has already come under attack by those within his coalition who insist that the insurgents be crushed rather than talked to.

Their argument is that the insurgents are pressing for talks because they know they have already failed to prevent the emergence of a new and democratic system.

Nevertheless, Al Maliki is right to open a dialogue with the groups that have responded to his initiative.

The insurgent groups have come up with demands designed to cast them in the role of "the voice of the voiceless". Their key demand is the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of the US-led coalition's troops.

There is no doubt that a majority of Iraqis want foreign troops to leave. However, it is equally clear that the same majority does not want a precipitous withdrawal.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. New Iraq is not in a position to protect itself against its predatory neighbours.

Also, the US-led coalition still plays a useful role as an arbiter among Iraqi political forces and religious and ethnic communities engaged in building the new system.

More importantly, perhaps, the coalition's commitment to new Iraq is the surest signal to the insurgents and their non-Iraqi terrorist allies that they cannot reverse the process of democratisation and restore despotism in the name either of Islam or of pan-Arabism.

The coalition is present in Iraq under a UN Security Council resolution passed at the end of 2003 and designed to highlight international support for the creation of a democratic regime in Baghdad.

The UN mandate was necessary because, at the time the resolution was passed, Iraq had ceased to have a sovereign authority.

Now that Iraq has regained its sovereignty in the form of a people-based government, the UN can no longer unilaterally extend the coalition's mandate. Any demand for extension must come from the Iraqi government.

It is almost certain that the new Iraqi parliament and government will seek an extension of the coalition's presence. Some within the coalition are calling for a two-year extension, which coincides exactly with the demand of the insurgent groups. Others want a one-year extension with the option for renewal.


The issue of the coalition's presence, however, is not one that the Iraqis can settle on their own.

What matters, however, is the attitude of the US, the key member and leader of the coalition.

Although the US Senate has just rejected suggestions that a timetable be set for withdrawal, there is no doubt that American public opinion support for military presence in Iraq is dwindling.

A change of majority in the US Congress in November may encourage those, like Senator John Kerry, who want a quick withdrawal from Iraq, to impose the very timetable that President George W. Bush believes would encourage the terrorists to keep fighting.

So far, Bush has contended himself by linking the issue of withdrawal to two factors: the ability of the new Iraqi army to defend the country and assurances from American commanders in Iraq that time has come for the US military to "stand down".

While Bush and Al Maliki have key roles to play on this issue, it is important that the coalition's extended presence does not become a bone of contention in American and Iraqi domestic politics.

To prevent the issue from becoming a domestic political football either in Baghdad or in Washington, a number of steps are needed.

First, Al Maliki must take the issue to the Iraqi National Assembly and secure as big a majority as possible for allowing his government to negotiate the extension of the coalition's military support. Next, he must negotiate a new deal with the US-led coalition.

It would then be Bush's turn to take the new package to the American people and Congress and build a broad coalition in support of Iraqi democracy.

The next step would be for the US and key allies, notably Britain, to join Iraq in taking the issue to the Security Council and seek support for a new, hopefully more broadly based and reorganised coalition.

Such a scenario would enable many countries that stayed out of the coalition for various reasons to join as part of a new international endeavour to support a member of the UN rebuild the structures of its statehood.

The Arab states could end their undeclared, though no less patent, boycott of new Iraq with, at least some, even joining the new UN-mandated coalition.

India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and even a number of European countries that stayed out of the original coalition that liberated Iraq might agree to join the new one.

If the liberation of Iraq from Ba'athist rule was a mainly Anglo-American enterprise, it is important that the building of a new Iraq becomes an international endeavour. The international community, especially the US and its coalition allies, should give Iraq the help it needs for a few more years.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.