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Paging the U.N.

Dumping Iraq's underperforming leader won't help. Reconciliation remains the only U.S. exit strategy.

August 26, 2007

What does sovereignty mean? In the case of Iraq, Washington can't seem to decide.

On June 28, 2004, the United States ceremoniously ended its occupation of Iraq by transferring sovereignty to its hand-picked interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. Three elections and two governments later, it has grown understandably disenchanted with the biased and incompetent rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Last week, President Bush and four key senators tied themselves in knots trying to figure out how to dump a failing ally while displaying respect for the Iraqi right to self-determination. Maliki fired back that he "can find friends elsewhere" if Washington doesn't like how the elected Iraqi leader runs his country.

How can the U.S. wield the influence it believes it has earned by shedding the blood of at least 3,725 American troops and spending perhaps $10 billion a month without appearing to be dictating terms to an independent nation or discrediting any Iraqi leader it favors with a politically radioactive embrace?

Like most of the problems the U.S. faces in Iraq, there is no solution to this one. Of course, the United States could engineer Maliki's ouster, even without resorting to a crude coup. It need only withhold aid until the teetering government in Baghdad collapses. Perhaps merely the calls by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for Maliki to resign or be replaced by the Iraqi parliament, combined with President Bush's tepid support, are sufficient to doom Maliki. But beware what you ask for: Maliki's successor could well be worse. Many U.S. analysts believe the man most likely to come to power if Maliki falls is Muqtada Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric and militia leader with deep ties to Iran.

The sterile debate on what to do about Maliki misses the point: No Iraqi government can succeed unless it has a credible claim to be a "unity government" that eschews sectarian divisions and is willing to share power and wealth for the benefit of all Iraqis. As even the Bush administration now belatedly understands, military victory in Iraq is a chimera. A stable, constructive Iraqi government can only emerge from a process of national political reconciliation that Maliki and his feuding fellow Shiites have not yet begun. The National Intelligence Estimate released last week, which reflects the collective wisdom of the American intelligence community, concludes that no meaningful political progress can be expected in Iraq for the next six to 12 months as the Maliki government becomes "more precarious." At current U.S. casualty rates, this suggests that more than 1,100 American troops could die needless deaths while Iraqi politicians dither.

Nothing that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus could report to Congress next month could lessen the need for a new political strategy in Iraq. It is wishful and deadly thinking to imagine that what's left of Maliki's Cabinet can broker a peace -- or offer the United States a coherent exit strategy. So the real question is, who can?

Iraq is long overdue for peace talks on a national scale, a process that should bring together all of its fractious parties -- except Al Qaeda -- as well as its key neighbors, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. The first goal must be to negotiate a temporary cease-fire, admittedly no small feat given that Iraq is now a many-sided shooting match. Next, the parties must begin the lengthy and difficult process of negotiating a unity government. The United States has demonstrated that, by itself, it cannot even convene the parties. Could the United Nations do it? Could it work in concert with the European Union and the Arab League? Might it enlist diplomatic help from the energetic French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has said Iraq needs international help?

It is pure fantasy to dream of U.N. peacekeepers coming to bail the United States out of its colossal folly in Iraq. But if the United Nations is to be relevant, how can it refuse to attempt to convene peace talks? True, some Iraqis best remember the U.N. as the enforcer of international sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the agent of the hated oil-for-food program. And Bush administration hawks still hold the U.N. in contempt. They need, quite simply, to get over it -- or to propose a more plausible peacemaker.

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