In just over three months, the United Nations mandate under which the US-led multinational force is present in Iraq will end. This means that the 130,000 troops provided by the US, Britain and 32 other countries would have either to go home or see their stay extended under a new arrangement.
Because Iraq has regained full sovereignty and has a government of its own, the United Nations alone can no longer take the decision whether or not foreign troops should remain on Iraqi soil. The final word on the subject must come from the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki with the consent of the Iraqi National Assembly (Parliament).
Maliki had promised to come up with a package of proposals on the subject within the first 100 days of his premiership. That he has not done so indicates the failure of his coalition to achieve anything resembling a consensus.
The coalition, which includes a broad spectrum of parties and groups with the widest range of ideologies, is united in the belief that new Iraq would need foreign military support for some time yet - maybe until the next general election in 2009. That military support is needed for three reasons: To deter "predatory" neighbors from intervening in Iraq, to prevent the militias from making a bid for power before the national army and police are operational, and to hunt down the insurgents and terrorists still active in parts of the country.
Beyond that, the coalition is divided into three camps with regard to the nationality, size and mission of the foreign forces that might still be needed.
In the first camp are the Kurdish parties and some Arab leftist groups, including the Communist Party that believe that only a force led by the US, and with a massive American presence, could keep the country together and persuade the insurgents and their terrorist allies that they cannot wreck new Iraq through murder and mayhem. The failure of the Europeans to assemble a small force to monitor the cease-fire in Lebanon has strengthened the position of those who believe that only the US has the will and the power to provide military muscle when and where needed.
Critics of that option, however, point to the fact that the US is facing midterm congressional elections and that, come November, President George W. Bush may no longer have a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. With only 20 of Americans still prepared to remain involved in Iraq, it would be hard for a lame-duck president facing a hostile Congress to provide the kind of commitment that Iraqis in this camp hope for. Even supposing Bush succeeds in persuading the next Congress to continue investing blood and treasure in new Iraq, many in Baghdad believe that his successor, whether Republican or Democrat, would not be as committed as he has been to what many Americans regard as a disastrous venture in a far-away land.
The second camp is that of the various Shiite parties, including those with links to Iran. What they want is a smaller multinational force, under US leadership, to continue fighting the insurgents in the four mainly Sunni provinces for as long as it takes. At the same time, however, they want the US-led multinational force to transfer control of the Shiite provinces to them - that is to say their militia. In 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces the US-led multinational force is still in charge of security, and in four it is still fighting the insurgents. Plans are under way for the transfer of three more provinces, now under British control, to Iraqi control by October.
Critics of this camp say the idea of using the US Army as a force of mercenaries fighting the insurgency without having a say in the rest of Iraq is a non-starter in Washington. The American public will not see why it should provide blood and treasure to protect the predominantly Islamist Shiite parties against their Sunni enemies, thus allowing them to create in parts of Iraq a "lite" version of the Khomeinist republic in Iran.
The third camp, consisting mostly of secularist parties, both Shiite and Sunni and supported by a good part of what one might call the " civil society", proposes a broadened multinational force in which half of the 130,000 troops needed would come from Arab and other Muslim countries. This would enable the US to cut the number of its troops in Iraq by half by early next year.
Architects of this proposal insist that the needed troops should not come from any of Iraq's immediate neighbors. This would exclude not only Iran, which is unacceptable to the Arab Sunnis, but also Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia whose troops would not be welcomed by Iraq's Shiite majority.
The countries expected to provide troops include Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. Because Sunni Muslims are in majority in all those countries, the presence of their troops may attenuate the anxieties of the Arab Sunni minority in Iraq.
But how likely is it that those countries would be prepared to provide any troops? Not very likely, at least at present. Most do not want the Iraq project to succeed because they loathe the idea of the US forcing Muslim nations to adopt Western-style structures. The only reason why some Arab countries, notably Egypt, might want to help Iraq at this point is to prevent Iran from dominating the scene there and emerging as a regional "superpower." Even then, no Arab country would be prepared to challenge Iran without the support of the United States, a support that may not be forthcoming after Bush has left the White House.
Another problem is that few countries would be prepared to put their troops in harm's way in a country awash with weapons and rival militias. The message we get in private conversations with officials from several major Muslim nations is clear: We may be able to come in provided the US disarms the militias first. And that, of course, is a tall order if only because it is not at all clear whether the militias are part of the problem or, in a different context, could be part of the solution.
Beyond the political elite and at the grass-root level most Iraqis, including a majority of Arab Sunnis, would prefer to see the US-led multinational force's mandate extended for at least another year. Last month, news that the US troops were resuming patrol duties in Baghdad led to scenes of rejoicing by both Sunni and Shiites in the capital.
" Iraqis and Americans are in this together," says Adnan Pachachi, the man regarded by many as the father of Iraq's new democratic constitution. "Whatever shape the new multinational force might take, it would not be able to do the job without US commitment and determination."
It is doubt about that commitment and determination that encourages all those who oppose new Iraq to keep fighting. The next meaningful move, therefore, could only come from the United States where the "cut-and-run" party appears to be in the ascendancy while the " stay-the-course" coalition is fast dwindling.