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Deal With the Sunnis

The United States is in a quagmire in Iraq because it rushed to war, and then to occupation, without a plan or even a realistic assessment. We must not exit Iraq in the same blind fashion.

We need a plan to stabilize Iraq politically before we exit. Any such plan must have numerous military, economic, and political dimensions. But a key feature should be to split up the Sunni Arab insurgency. This insurgency is already deeply divided between secular (nationalist, Baathist) and religious elements and--within the latter--between Islamists focused on Iraq and hardcore utopian revolutionaries (Salafists like Al Qaeda) who see a U.S. defeat in Iraq as the first step in a global jihadist war. As the Iraqi conflict has worn on, the radical Salafists have become more powerful, more dynamic, and more homegrown. If the United States simply races for the exits, they could make western Iraq a terrorist state-within-a-state like what Al Qaeda built in Afghanistan.

While some American officials have met with insurgent representatives, these talks never have been serious enough to yield anything. We need to negotiate a deal that will induce the tactical insurgents and their tribal networks to turn on the jihadists and crush them, and then stabilize their own region and restrain the larger violence. Such an agreement is possible because the nationalist and Baathist Sunni insurgents want--like the United States--to prevent an Al Qaeda victory in Iraq; they view Iran, not us, as their strategic enemy; and they want a deal that gives them a meaningful share of power and resources.

To get a deal, we need to give reassurances to the nationalist and Baathist Sunnis. First, President Bush must openly disavow any intention of seeking permanent military bases in Iraq. The widespread belief that we are seeking them powerfully motivates Iraqi nationalist resistance (including from radical Shia militias). Second, we need to establish some kind of timetable for U.S. military withdrawal (or at least very substantial drawdown). It need not be immediate.Fearing an Iranian takeover, many Sunni Arab insurgents might accept a timetable stretched over two to three years and keyed to events on the ground.Finally, we have to keep pressing the other Iraqi parties for concessions on outstanding national issues: the federal structure of the country, control over oil, division of the oil wealth, and some rollback of de-Baathification. (Any agreement would also require amnesty for most insurgents, as well as militia fighters.)

At the same time, we must deal directly and more boldly with the constitutional stalemate. Particularly infuriating for Sunni Arabs are the provisions that allow for the formation of a Shia super-region, spanning all nine southern provinces (half the country). With about 70 percent of Iraq's oil deep in the Shia south--and much of the rest in and around Kirkuk, which the Kurds are determined to incorporate--the Sunnis see this as a formula for their defeat. Intense constitutional bargaining is needed to clearly establish the central government's lead role in managing the oil fields; to eliminate the possibility of forming one big, dominant Shia super-region; and to craft a fair and internationally guaranteed formula for dividing the country's oil and gas revenue among the different parts of the country.

Such a diplomatic strategy for rescuing Iraq cannot be managed by the United States alone. We lack the legitimacy, the leverage, and the trust to pull it off.To save Iraq, we must internationalize the mediation effort, bringing in the European Union and the United Nations as full partners. This joint effort could then reach out to engage the neighboring Arab states (including Syria), the Arab League, Turkey, and--not least--Iran. If a viable deal is going to be struck to stabilize Iraq, everyone will have to make concessions. The neighboring Arab states will have to put pressure on the Sunni Arabs, the Iranians on the Shia religious parties, and the Americans on the Kurds. To get the Syrians and the Iranians to press for compromise in Iraq, the United States itself will have to talk directly with them and address their concerns that we are seeking more "regime change."

If it seems that Syria and Iran, and all the internal troublemakers, have the upper hand in Iraq, ponder this: The chaos in Iraq that was good for them in the past now risks spilling over borders and threatening, rather than insulating, the neighboring regimes. Iran--a multinational state that is barely half Persian--must worry about the implications for its own stability of Iraq disintegrating into ethnic pieces. Syria faces a formidable threat from its own Islamic radicals.So do the other Arab neighbors. Thus, there remains scope for a deal, because each of the major players faces serious risks if Iraq disintegrates. These anxieties give the United States leverage that it has so far dared not exercise--but it may have to, by threatening recalcitrant parties that we will withdraw much more rapidly, and in ways that hurt them tactically and strategically, if they do not compromise.

That would be a risky tactic. But, if we cut a deal with the secular Sunni insurgents, we might at least preempt an Al Qaeda victory. And, if we do not get mutual concessions to achieve a constitutional compromise, Iraq will just keep sliding toward all-out civil war, with the United States stuck bloodily in the middle. Sooner or later, that would force a different kind of U.S. exit--far more chaotic, humiliating, and deadly.

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.