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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Iraq politics: Just talk?

The US has been sending out mixed signals with regard to its policy towards Iraq, alternating a bellicose approach, in particular towards Iran, with all-inclusive diplomacy. This may be a deliberate ploy, aimed at keeping its adversaries and critics--including the US Congress--off-balance, or else it may reflect confusion, or even discord, at the heart of the US administration.

The tilt towards diplomacy has come in the form of acceptance of an invitation from the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to take part in an international conference in Baghdad on March 10th-11th aimed at supporting the Iraqi government's efforts to consolidate its position and confront the formidable security challenges that it faces. The US has been invited, along with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Iraq's six neighbours--Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as representatives of the UN, the Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organisation. A second meeting has been suggested for April, with Istanbul said to be the most likely location.

Welcome back Iran and Syria

By agreeing to take part in the conference (and even perhaps suggesting the idea of the event to Mr Maliki) the US has apparently adopted one of the central recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), calling for just such a meeting and urging the administration to engage in dialogue with Iran and Syria. Lee Hamilton, a co-chairman of the ISG, described the move as marking a "huge change" in US policy towards Iraq; the White House demurred, stating that there had been no change of policy, and that there was no question of the meeting denoting diplomatic recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The ISG called for an international conference on Iraq to be held by the end of 2006. Instead, the US president, George W Bush, ordered a troop "surge" (an option that was included in the ISG report, albeit on a temporary basis) and issued a series of strongly worded warnings to Iran and Syria. He said that the success of the new strategy, which was unveiled in early January, required defending Iraq's territorial integrity and "stabilising the region in the face of extremist challenges". "This begins with addressing Iran and Syria," he said. "These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." The US has since made much of the role that Iran is supposedly playing in providing munitions to Shia groups that have carried out lethal attacks on American forces in Iraq, although it has made no specific accusations of Syrian involvement in the violence.

Having made its point with respect to Iran, the US could present its agreement to take part in multilateral talks as coming from a position of strength. The White House has also ruled out holding any bilateral discussions with the Iranian delegation to the Baghdad conference, thereby removing any prospect of a trade-off between Iraqi security and the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme. This suggests that little of substance can be expected from the US-Iranian encounter in Baghdad. Iran may be prepared to make some general pledges to use its influence over Iraq's main Shia parties in a constructive manner, but it is not in a position to deliver a solution in Iraq that would allow the US to make an orderly exit, even if it were inclined to do so.

The main US demand on Syria with regard to Iraq is to take effective steps to prevent the flow of weapons, munitions and aspiring suicide bombers across its border, and thereby inhibit the operations of the Sunni Arab insurgency, which has been responsible for the majority of the American casualties in the country, as well for a large part of the civilian death toll. However, the extent of Syria's influence over the insurgency, or indeed over any political group in Iraq, is open to question. The ISG suggested that Syria could be induced to be helpful by being offered the prospect of recovering the Golan Heights as part of a peace settlement with Israel, but it included a long list of conditions that Syria must fulfil before such an approach could be considered--such as cutting off support to Hizbullah and Hamas, and ending its interference in Lebanese affairs. The US has shown no inclination to offer Syria any sort of diplomatic reward for the dubious benefit of its co-operation in Iraq. The best that Syria can realistically hope for from the Baghdad conference is UN help in dealing with the influx of Iraqi refugees.

The conferences could serve a useful purpose in mobilising support for the Maliki government, but they are unlikely to produce a regional diplomatic breakthrough. The US administration would thus be able to establish that it is ready to talk with its regional adversaries, but that such an approach is of little use without a fundamental change in their policies.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
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