The media has been shouting (e.g. here) strategies for making peace in Iraq. These plans leave out the most viable route to peace: negotiating with one of the two rival factions of the insurgents.
CNN reported (available here) this week on a video from Iraq's Islamic Army inviting negotiations. The CNN report confirms what I wrote in this space last month: the Ba‘athi (Saddam loyalists or "dead enders") are willing to extend a "golden bridge" for the United States to draw back from Iraq. Let me explain how this would work and why it could be the best scenario for ending the war.
The first thing to understand is something the Bush Administration for political reasons has obscured since before the war even started: the Arab nationalists (Ba‘athi, Islamic Army et al.) and Al-Qaeda cordially detest each other and have for a generation. The Bush Administration, wishing to link its Iraq war to 9/11, has insisted on linking Al- Qaeda with the Saddam regime. It was the U.S. invasion that thrust the two into a strategic alliance-but one that has always been fragile. The Ba‘athi do not want an Iraq, or a part of Iraq, harboring jihadists. The recent mujaheddin declaration (available here) of an embryonic "Islamic State" in Iraq makes its strange bedfellow even more restless.
Besides enmity towards Al-Qaeda, the Ba‘athi share with the United States another preoccupation: Iran and its growing influence in Iraq. The Ba‘athi claim many Shi‘a share that concern. Why? Because Iraq's Shi‘a, like the Sunni, are Arab and don't want the "Persians" controlling their country. Remember the Shi‘a fought loyally against Iran in the 1980's despite Khomeni's efforts to detach them.
So the Ba‘athi and the United States share two common enemies: Al-Qaeda and an expansionist Iran. That is why the Islamic Army-a military Ba‘ath wing-is open to negotiations. It also makes hash out of the principal argument of those wishing to "stay the course": that if we were to leave, the terrorists would take over. That would not be the case if we grab the opportunity to split the alliance.
How would this exit strategy work? First of all it would not be an exit, since neither the Ba‘ath or other Sunnis wish to be left alone to confront Iran and Al-Qaeda. A U.S. presence in Iraq could be welcome to the Sunnis and the Arab nationalists under the right terms for ending the current war.
How to end the war? As I wrote in September: "split the former Ba'ath nationalist from the jihadists and bring the former into a national-unity government. The government that would emerge from elections would include a reformed, renamed and resurgent Ba'ath contingency. A national-unity government emerging from those elections could preserve the now severely threatened territorial integrity of Iraq and show the jihadists the gate."
The Washington Post lead story on the U.S. elections today (available here) reported on the likelihood of a divided U.S. government and perhaps even "bi-partisan partnerships" emerging from the November elections. The Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq, due to report right after the elections, already constitutes a bi-partisan partnership. It should consider making selective negotiations a signal feature of its recommendations.
Robert S. Leiken is the director of the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center and is currently working on a book about Muslims in Europe.