The meeting in Jordan this week between George W. Bush and Nouri al-Maliki could be their last opportunity to develop a joint strategy on Iraq. President Bush, entering his lame-duck phase with Congress controlled by political adversaries, may see his influence in shaping policy diminish. Prime Minister Maliki risks being forced from office, pressured by domestic rivals and Iranian mullahs who resent his emphasis on "uruqa" (Iraqi identity) rather than Shiism. In this context, what Messrs. Bush and Maliki tell each other assumes the utmost importance.
The last time the two leaders met, Mr. Bush promised a U.S. commitment until Iraq could defend itself against domestic and foreign foes, even hinting at measures that would guarantee the vow under the next administration. He is no longer in a position to offer as much. Still, Mr. Maliki ought to ask for a reassertion of American commitment, the most effective weapon against the Saddamist and al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq. At the end of this year, the mission of the U.S.-led multinational force, under a U.N. mandate, will end. Mr. Maliki should ask that it be extended for three years -- that is, until the next general election in Iraq.
While Iraq continues to need a U.S. and allied presence, the country is putting the final touches on a plan under which the army and police assume responsibility for security in all 18 provinces before the end of 2007. (This is already the case in five provinces, with two more slated to be handed over before the end of the year.) Mr. Maliki might also ask for renewed support for the Iraqi army, which the president has often praised, but to which his administration has been reluctant to give the vote of confidence it deserves.
In addition to a lack of modern equipment, the army has virtually no logistics -- without U.S. forces, it would have to hire taxis to reach any battlefield. Too few American and other allied officers and NCOs are seconded to the army. Iraq also faces a desperate shortage of officers. At the current rate of training it might need another 10 years to reach its targets.
There is also talk of approaching some of the enemies of the U.S., notably Iran and Syria, in the hope of getting their help in ending the violence in Iraq. Mr. Maliki must demand that Mr. Bush reject such talk. Suspicions that the U.S. might try to hand Iraq over to Iran would incite Iraqi nationalists against the very democratic process he wishes to defend. Mr. Maliki might suggest: Instead of talking to enemies, why not talk to friends? Ask, for example, the "moderate" Arab friends, and some NATO allies, to end their boycott of the new Iraq. Why do they refuse to reactivate their embassies in Baghdad and appoint full ambassadors? Why do they allow their territory to be used for jihadi recruitment, fundraising and deployment to Iraq?
But the real war over Iraq is fought in the U.S. Here, Mr. Bush's administration continues to fail to explain what is at stake. In the Middle East, the old status quo and the balance of power that sustained it have been shattered. The region needs new structures of stability, which could either be created by the U.S. and its allies, including the new regimes in Kabul and Baghdad, or by the enemies of the U.S., particularly Tehran and its Syrian clients. An undemocratic and anti-American region will become a marshland of fanaticism where terror is bred, a point Mr. Maliki should drive home. U.S. national security requires success not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Maliki should also emphasize the successes the U.S. has seen in Iraq: Saddam Hussein has been toppled; and power has been transferred to the people of Iraq, who have written their own constitution and conducted free elections. Not surprisingly, this new Iraq is challenged by all manner of retrograde forces: pan-Arabists, pan-Islamists, jihadists, Khomeinists and downright nihilists. That challenge, he should note, must be met with determination.
In his response, Mr. Bush should recognize his own limitations. As the recent elections revealed, a majority of Americans have doubts about the wisdom of involvement. It is not enough for him to say the U.S. has achieved its objectives if the lack of basic security in Baghdad makes it impossible for millions to enjoy their new freedoms. But as the power of the Tikriti clique has devolved on the people of Iraq, Mr. Bush must ask them to be its primary defenders. This will require the government and parliament to take a number of measures.
For one, it needs to postpone plans for a federal system that is anathema to Arab Sunnis and regarded with suspicion by secular Shiites, and recognize that it may take years to build an acceptable consensus on that issue. Parliament must freeze the issue of Kirkuk until after the next general election in 2009. It also needs to develop an equitable system of sharing oil revenues. Even if provinces that have no oil get a bigger role for a few years, the price is worth paying to maintain Iraq's unity.
Mr. Bush should also allow that the disbanding the army of the former regime was a mistake, albeit one done on the advice of the new Iraqi political elite, including Mr. Maliki's camp. The way to rectify the mistake is to invite all former offices and NCOs, if they wish, to return to service. With stringent screening measures in place, Iraq would be able to keep the undesirable elements out while allowing others a second chance. In the same spirit, parliament must also come up with a more comprehensive amnesty law to cover hundreds of thousands of people whose sole offense was membership in the Baath Party, often forced upon them by circumstances.
Mr. Bush must also emphasize that Mr. Maliki's government has failed to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with security issues. It needs a coordinator to make sure that the ministries of defense and interior, the army command, the police hierarchy and the dozen or so different armed units attached to different ministries work together to prevent infiltration and rogue actors, including those that pose as Shiite militias. It also needs to root out corruption and nepotism. Mr. Maliki must have heard what they say in Baghdad teahouses about "a government of thieves and their cousins." Perhaps this is unfair. But corruption could become as much of a threat as the jihadists.
Finally, while Mr. Bush should demonstrate that America remains committed to the new Iraq, he should only prepare to renew the U.S. mission for one more year, dependent on a credible plan for transferring responsibility for security to the Maliki government. In that year, the U.S. ought to intensify its training programs and examine options for expanding the weapons system of the new Iraqi army. Contrary to some perceptions, America does not abandon its friends. It will certainly not hand Iraq to its enemies, least of all Iran. But nor does it write blank checks.
Mr. Taheri is author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).