March 5, 2007 -- CONTRARY to the impression left by many, this coming weekend's international conference in Baghdad has nothing to do with last year's Baker-Hamilton panel. It's an idea first launched by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in 2005, and recently adopted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki and Zebari rejected the Baker-Hamilton recommendation that the United States discuss the future of Iraq with Iran and Syria to the exclusion of the elected Iraqi government. Thus, the conference is a sign that the Bush administration has definitely rejected the key recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton group.
Those who see the decision to attend as a sign that Washington is eating humble pie on Iran are also wrong.
Since 2002, America has attended several international conferences at which representatives of the Islamic Republic have been present: the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan, the 2004 Madrid and Sharm al-Sheikh conferences on Iraq and the 2005 Tokyo conference on Afghanistan.
The only question pertinent to the Baghdad conference is whether it contributes to containing and ending violence in Iraq, thus allowing political and economic reconstruction to proceed faster.
The conference deserves support for a number of reasons:
* It's the first major diplomatic initiative launched by the new Iraqi regime.
* It will bring together envoys from all permanent members of the United Nations' Security Council, Iraq's six neighbors, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
* It would be the first time that envoys from some 70 nations come to Baghdad to show support for new Iraq.
The presence of Arab and other Islamic powers is significant - for most had tried to hedge their bets about the future of Iraq by effectively ignoring the new Iraqi regime. Their attendance ends an unannounced boycott of the Maliki government.
Initially, most would-be participants were cool to the idea. As late as last December, Arab leaders were saying that they had no interest in bolstering a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad and would rather wait and see whether the Americans would stay or run away.
The U.S. decision to send some 27,000 more troops to Iraq, plus a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, helped persuade the hesitant Arabs that there will be no American cut-and-run, at least for as long as President Bush is in the White House.
In a sense, the Baghdad conference represents a diplomatic success for both the Bush administration and the Maliki government. It opens the way for Iraq to join the new emerging Arab and Islamic blocs as a diplomatic partner.
But Iraq needs more than recognition: It needs the cooperation of its neighbors to stem the flow of arms and terrorists. In that context, Syria and Iran will come under the spotlight at the conference.
Iraqi officials claim they have "names, addresses and a mass of other evidence" indicating Syria's "extensive involvement" in the Sunni-led insurgency. They also claim to possess "compelling evidence" of Iran's efforts to build networks in Iraq, especially in the south.
The Baghdad conference provides an opportunity for shaping an international plan to help Iraq fight its enemies. In that context, it could become harder for Iran and Syria to continue investing in terrorists and militias in Iraq. At the same time, the so-called moderate Arab states that have acted as cheerleaders for insurgents (not to mention tolerating the activities of anti-Iraq groups on their soil) would have to abandon such destructive tactics.
Iraq may need another three years to rebuild its security forces to levels required to crush the insurgency and impose an effective government presence throughout the nation. Since the United States may not remain committed to Iraq beyond the Bush presidency, Iraq must find new partners, especially as far as training security forces and protecting the nation's borders are concerned. The conference could commit the participants to a five-year plan to help rebuild Iraq's military and economic infrastructures.
It could play yet another useful role by enabling the Maliki government to make domestic concessions. Under pressure from problematic Shiite allies who keep his coalition in power, Maliki can't impose the policies needed to reassure the Arab Sunni minority.
These policies include amending the de-Ba'athification law to end the exclusion of more than a million people from the civil and military service. That would allow large numbers of experienced personnel to help revive the civil service, army and police. .
Other moves that should be made with support from the international community include a postponement of the referendum in Kirkuk (a mixed city contested by Kurds, Turcomans and Sunni Arabs) and a slowing down of the development of federal structures: Let the people of Iraq understand what is at stake before they decide whether they want it.
The Baghdad conference is expected to come up with draft proposals for submission to a conference foreign ministers' level, to be held in Istanbul in April. Rather that staying on the sidelines, smirking in schadenfreude, the international community must help the new Iraq. But that help must be conditioned to Iraqis helping themselves - by making the tough decisions that Maliki and his predecessors could not or did not want to make.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.