The best news in a long time has got to be Time magazine’s remarkable story about negotiations taking place between the U.S. and the Iraqi insurgency. Time reports:
"Pentagon officials say the secret contacts with insurgent leaders are being conducted mainly by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. A Western observer close to the discussions says that ‘there is no authorized dialogue with the insurgents’ but that the U.S. has joined ‘back-channel’ communications with rebels. Says the observer: ‘There’s a lot bubbling under the surface today.’"
This is enormously significant, first of all because it means an influential section of the U.S. military and political leadership has begun to realize that they can’t win the war in a purely military sense with the present level of resources. Sure, the United States could do what it did to Germany and Japan: it could physically pulverize the country, kill off a significant proportion of the population, and engage in a vast project of social engineering requiring the expenditure of a great deal of money and effort over a long period of time say, a decade or so.
How likely is that? Given the present circumstances, not very.
The alternative, now that we’ve made the mistake of conquering and occupying Iraq, is to get out as soon as possible that is, without doing any more damage to American interests than the War Party has already inflicted. These negotiations Time reveals that "two such meetings have taken place" are a hopeful sign. The more realistic wing of the American power elite invariably the military wing, as opposed to the warmongering "idealists" of the Chickenhawk Brigade, largely civilians is finally taking the initiative.
Negotiations are a good way to gather intelligence on an insurgency we know very little about, and this is doubtless the major justification involved for maintaining such contacts. But the mere fact that this initiative exists is evidence that at least some in a position of authority albeit not in the White House are looking to build the foundations for a political solution. Clearly, it was the Americans who initiated the negotiations:
"In meetings with Sunni tribal leaders, Lieut. Colonel Rick Welch, the senior special-operations civil-military affairs adviser to the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, put word out that the military was willing to talk to hardliners about their grievances and that, as Welch says, ‘the door is not closed, except for some very top regime guys.’ Welch, a reservist and prosecutor from Morgan County, Ohio, told Time, ‘I don’t meet all the insurgent leaders, but I’ve met some of them.’ Although not an authorized negotiator, Welch has become a back channel in the nascent U.S. dialogue with the insurgents. Insurgent negotiators confirm to Time that they have met with Welch."
This news and it is very good news underscores a point that has been made in this space repeatedly: organized Iraqi resistance to the occupation is far from united, either ideologically or organizationally. The fiction that the insurgents are somehow personified by Abu al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi face of al-Qaeda, may have some propagandistic utility on the home front, where the American people are kept on a strict diet of nonstop fantasy as far as the actions of their government abroad are concerned. But on the ground in Iraq it is worse than useless: wearing ideological blinders on the battlefield would be fatal.
The neocon narrative of a "cakewalk" in which the victorious American "liberators" would be pelted with flowers and greeted as saviors broke down rather quickly: it didn’t take long for the rose petals to morph into RPGs. Now the realists and every soldier is a "realist" by necessity are trying to clean up the mess, and to do so they must understand their enemy (that is, aside from their enemies in Washington). The insurgents’ decision to go public and put a different face on their movement other than that of the demonic Zarqawi paints a very different portrait of the Iraqi insurgency, and Time provides us with some fascinating reading:
"They say their aim is to establish a political identity that can represent disenfranchised Sunnis and eventually negotiate an end to the U.S. military’s offensive in the Sunni triangle. Their model is Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which ultimately earned the IRA a role in the Northern Ireland peace process. ‘That’s what we’re working for, to have a political face appear from the battlefield, to unify the groups, to resist the aggressor and put our views to the people,’ says a battle commander in the upper tiers of the insurgency who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Marwan. Another negotiator, called Abu Mohammed, told Time, ‘Despite what has happened, the possibility for negotiation is still open.’"
As to the identity of these two individuals, Abu Mohammed could possibly be this guy. As for Abu Marwan, someone by that name was identified as a 33-year-old Islamic militant associated with Zarqawi and al-Qaeda, and he’s supposed to be already captured. For that matter, it’s also the name of a famous Muslim physician of the Middle Ages. Be that as it may
If Sinn Fein the political wing of the IRA is their model, then what the insurgents are asking is to participate directly in elections: the Sinn Fein party entered British parliamentary elections in the early part of the century and won handily. But instead of taking their seats in Westminster, they convened their own Assembly in Dublin and declared independence from Great Britain. Since that time, the Irish republican movement, in one form or another, has fought to unite the island of Eire into a single Irish Republic, utilizing every front military, political, and diplomatic in order to achieve its aims. Under Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein/IRA became an electoral movement and entered the political mainstream, a process that culminated in the Belfast Agreement. Adams ended the traditional policy of abstentionism and split with the old-line IRA rejectionists, who had always refused take any seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
What Iraq’s insurgents are telling us, by raising this example, is that they are in this for the long haul and that, if the U.S. is looking for a purely military solution, it had better be prepared to fight for the greater part of a century. But their determination is tempered by realism a characteristic they share with at least some of their counterparts on the other side of the negotiating table.
Much has been said about the alleged Sunni "boycott" of the Iraqi elections but it was more like a lockout. The American-imposed "interim constitution" of occupied Iraq has so many provisions limiting the political participation of former Ba’ath party members that it precludes any leadership arising out of the old Sunni elites, who dominated the country under Saddam. Along with a blanket proscription against "moral turpitude" which, it seems, could be lodged against any politician Article 31 of the interim constitution stipulates that candidates for Iraq’s National Assembly
"Shall not have been a member of the dissolved Ba’ath Party with the rank of Division Member or higher, unless exempted pursuant to the applicable legal rules.
"If he was once a member of the dissolved Ba’ath Party with the rank of Full Member, he shall be required to sign a document renouncing the Ba’ath Party and disavowing all of his past links with it before becoming eligible to be a candidate, as well as to swear that he no longer has any dealings or connection with Ba’ath Party organizations. If it is established in court that he lied or fabricated on this score, he shall lose his seat in the National Assembly."
The neocon-written "Constitution," forced on the Iraqis at gunpoint, is going to become a major source of contention, and not only from the millions of former Ba’athists, but also from the Shi’ite parties. Specifically, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Shi’ite cleric who engineered the victory of the United Iraq Alliance slate, has always opposed a proviso effectively granting the Kurds effective veto power over the new constitution, which will be up for a referendum at the end of this year. If only three provinces dissent from the rest of the country, the whole process must begin all over again and the occupation continues. Which is just fine as far as the Kurds are concerned. The Israelis, their American cheering section, and Christopher Hitchens will all be very pleased by this prospect, along with the red-state fascists who have taken over the GOP. But growing public disenchantment with the war, and rumbles on the right and in the very epicenter of the American foreign policy establishment, as well as on the left, could force the administration to compromise, particularly as "Abu Marwan" displaces Zarqawi as the public face of the insurgency.
Along with new revelations of widespread abuse of Iraqi civilians, amounting to a policy of systematized sadism incidents, by the way, in which Kurdish peshmergas figured prominently the prospect of peace talks could trigger a new momentum toward a negotiated settlement of this senseless and unwinnable war. Let’s negotiate with Abu Marwan and the nationalist elements of the Iraqi insurgency: we either deal with the Iraqi Gerry Adams, or else empower Zarqawi and the Islamists.
The biggest obstacle to a negotiated settlement is undoubtedly going to be the nascent Shi’ite regime now being birthed in the National Assembly, the "Islamic Republic of Iraq." The "de-Ba’athification" process has empowered the long-suffering Shi’ite majority, which is now in a position to wreak retribution for all those years of Sunni oppression. This being the Middle East, it is not very likely that they’ll pass up the opportunity and, instead, embrace a politics of national reconciliation. The question now becomes: do we want to get caught in the middle of this sectarian war, empowering the Shi’ites and regionalizing the conflict? Or is it time to get out while the going is good?
Another way to ask the same question: Why must Americans die for the Islamic Republic of Iraq? The idea that we must fight for the interests of the Shi’ite majority to impose sharia Muslim religious laws governing every aspect of life on the peoples of Iraq completely inverts the recent presidential pledge to support "democratic movements" as a means of obtaining the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world."
Perhaps I was too hasty, a couple of weeks ago, when I wrote:
"The U.S., in refusing to negotiate with a complex array of guerrilla groups it indiscriminately labels ‘terrorist,’ and rejecting out of hand the Sunni demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, is fueling the insurgency rather than effectively fighting it. With the election results fairly certain to impose a Shi’ite-dominated government on the rest of the country, Brent Scowcroft’s speculation that an ‘incipient civil war‘ is in the works is hardly a shocking conclusion. I would go further and stipulate that the civil war is not necessarily limited to Iraq, but is likely to go regional."
The secret negotiations, it seems, were going on almost as that was being written, and this is good news, but it requires a coordinated effort by the peace movement to craft a specific program coinciding with the proposals put forward by Iraqi nationalists. Their demands, it seems, are minimal, including a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces tempered by some surprising concessions, as Time reports:
"Insurgent negotiators have told their U.S. counterparts they would accept a UN peacekeeping force as the U.S. troop presence recedes. Insurgent representative Abu Mohammed says the nationalists would even tolerate U.S. bases on Iraqi soil. ‘We don’t mind if the invader becomes a guest,’ he says, suggesting a situation akin to the U.S. military presence in Germany and Japan."
Of course they want U.S. bases as protection against their neighbors and as sources of income. I think it’s a lousy idea, but it underscores how ready the Sunnis are to make a deal. George W. Bush would be a fool not to take it.