If all goes well, a contact team working for Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki will soon meet a delegation of clerics and former military men representing the Arab Sunni insurgency. On the agenda will be an end to the insurgency in exchange for a package of promises by the new government, including partial amnesty for the armed rebels.
Maliki has already come under attack by those within his coalition who insist that the insurgents be crushed rather than talked to. Their argument is that the insurgents are pressing for talks because they know they have already failed to prevent the emergence of a new and democratic system.
Part of that argument may well be convincing. Some of the 11 insurgent groups now calling for talks are among the most vicious terror gangs in the world. Others exist on the murky borderline of political dissent and common criminality. At least one of the groups involved is believed to be at the center of the "kidnapping industry" that, last year alone, organized the abduction of more than 30,000 Iraqis and hundreds of expatriates.
Nevertheless, Maliki is right to open a dialogue with the groups that have responded to his initiative.
The insurgent groups have come up with demands designed to cast them in the role of "the voice of the voiceless."
Their key demand is the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of the US-led coalition's troops. (They suggest a two-year period in which all coalition troops would leave.)
There is no doubt that a majority of Iraqis want foreign troops to leave. However, it is equally clear that the same majority dos not want a precipitous withdrawal.
The reasons for this are not hard to fathom.
New Iraq is not in a position to protect itself against its predatory neighbors. Also, the US-led coalition still plays a useful role as an arbiter among Iraqi political forces and religious and ethnic communities engaged in building the new system. More importantly, perhaps, the coalition's commitment to new Iraq is the surest signal to the insurgents and their non-Iraqi terrorist allies that they cannot reverse the process of democratization and restore despotism in the name either of Islam or of pan-Arabism.
The coalition is present in Iraq under a United Nations Security Council resolution passed at the end of 2003 and designed to highlight international support for the creation of a democratic regime in Baghdad.
The UN mandate was necessary because, at the time the resolution was passed, Iraq had ceased to have a sovereign authority. Now that Iraq has regained its sovereignty in the form of a people-based government, the UN can no longer unilaterally extend the coalition's mandate.
Any demand for extension must come from the Iraqi government. It is almost certain that the new Iraqi Parliament and government will seek an extension of the coalition's presence. Some within the coalition are calling for a two-year extension, which coincides exactly with the demand of the insurgent groups. Others want a one-year extension with the option for renewal.
The issue of the coalition's presence, however, is not one that the Iraqis can settle on their own. It is not certain that the coalition will dance to whatever tune the Iraqis might play. The number of coalition members has already shrunk from 41 in 2003 to 32 today and may drop further when others, including Italy and Japan, withdraw their troops before the UN mandate ends.
What matters, however, is the attitude of the United States. Although the US Senate has just rejected suggestions that a timetable be set for withdrawal, there is no doubt that American public opinion support for military presence in Iraq is dwindling. A change of majority in the US Congress in November may encourage those who want a quick withdrawal from Iraq, to impose a timetable.
So far President Bush has contended himself by linking the issue of withdrawal to two factors: The ability of the new Iraqi Army to defend the country, and assurances from American commanders in Iraq that time has come for the US military to "stand down."
Ideally, the coalition would remain in a state of high-profile commitment, including a military presence albeit on a reduced scale, for at least another four years.
That period would allow Iraq to hold its second democratic general election under its new constitution. Because the next election will be held under a new electoral law, it will offer a clearer political portrayal of post-Baathist Iraq in its diversity. At the same time four years is the minimum required for new institutions to be completed and, at least partially, tested and for the new democratic culture to strike deeper roots in society.
While Bush and Maliki have key roles to play on this issue, it is important that the coalition's extended presence does not become a bone of contention in American and Iraqi domestic politics.
That, of course, is easier said than done. Many Iraqi politicians, and not only within the insurgency, cannot resist the temptation of casting themselves in the role of nationalists resisting foreign occupation. And there are, of course, scoundrels who look to patriotism as a last resort. As for the US, it is certain that those who wish Iraq to fail as a just comeuppance for Bush would not resist the temptation of such an attractive slogan as "Bring The Boys Home Now!"
To prevent the issue from becoming a domestic political football either in Baghdad or in Washington, a number of steps are needed. First, Maliki must take the issue to the Iraqi National Assembly and secure as big a majority as possible for allowing his government to negotiate the extension of the coalition's military support. Next, he must negotiate a new deal with the US-led coalition. It would then be President Bush's turn to take the new package to the American people and Congress and build a broad coalition in support of Iraqi democracy. The next step would be for the United States and key allies, notably Britain, to join Iraq in taking the issue to the Security Council and seek support for a new, hopefully more broadly based, and reorganized coalition.
Such a scenario would enable many countries that stayed out of the coalition for various reasons to join it as part of a new international endeavor to support a member of the United Nations rebuild the structures of its statehood. The Arab states could end their undeclared, though no less patent, boycott of new Iraq with, at least some, even joining the new UN-mandated coalition. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and even a number of European countries that stayed out of the original coalition might agree to join the new one.
If the ousting of the Baathist rule in Iraq was a mainly Anglo-American enterprise, it is important that the building of a new Iraq becomes an international endeavor. Iraq is off to a good start but is not yet out of the woods. The international community, especially the US and its coalition allies, should give Iraq the help it needs for a few more years.