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IRAN AND BAGHDAD CONFERENCE
by Amir Taheri
Arab News
March 5, 2007

Even before invitation cards were out for next weekend's international conference in Baghdad, the issue had become another bone of contention in the acrimonious American debate on Iraq.

Those who wish the United States to fail have dismissed the plan as a belated, and thus useless, attempt by the Bush administration to implement the Baker-Hamilton recommendations of last year. Some members of the Baker-Hamilton group, appearing on the box with "I-told-you-so" grins wider than the Pacific, have echoed that view.

A few pundits have suggested that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's eagerness to promote a conference where Iran would also be present amounted to a reversal of the policy not to talk to the mullahs.

The so-called "neocons", who had dismissed Baker-Hamilton as a dangerous exercise from the start, have described US participation in the conference as a " dangerous betrayal."

The truth, however, is that the proposed conference has nothing to do with Baker-Hamilton.

It is an idea, first launched by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in 2005, and recently adopted by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

Maliki and Zebari had rejected the Baker-Hamilton recommendation that the US discuss the future of Iraq with Iran and Syria to the exclusion of the elected Iraqi government. Thus, the coming conference should be seen as a sign that the Bush administration has definitely rejected the key recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton group.

However, shouldn't one see the administration's decision to attend as a sign that Washington is eating humble pie on Iran?

The answer is no.

Since 2002, US has attended several international conferences in which the Islamic republic has also been present. There was the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan followed by the 2004 Madrid and Sharm Al-Sheikh conferences on Iraq and the 2005 Tokyo conference on Afghanistan.

The only question pertinent to the proposed Baghdad conference is whether it contributes to containing and finally ending violence in Iraq, thus allowing political and economic reconstruction to proceed faster. The conference deserves support for a number of reasons.

To start with, it is the first major diplomatic initiative launched by the new Iraqi regime.

The conference will bring together envoys from all permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Iraq's six neighbors. The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) will also be present. There are also talks to ensure participation by other powers, notably Japan and India. This would be the first time that envoys from some 70 nations come to Baghdad to in a show of support for new Iraq.

The presence of Arab and other Islamic powers is especially significant if only because most had tried to hedge their bets about the future of Iraq by effectively ignoring the new Iraqi regime. Their attendance would end an unannounced boycott of the Maliki government.

Initially, most would-be participants were cool on the idea.

As late as last December, Arab leaders would tell us that they had no interest in bolstering a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad, and would rather wait and see whether the Americans stay or run away.

The US decision to send some 27,000 more troops to Iraq, plus a second aircraft carrier in the Gulf, has helped persuade the hesitant Arabs that there would be no American cut-and-run at least for as long as George W. Bush is in the White House.

That analysis helped the Arabs to create a new bloc of eight nations to oppose Tehran's regional ambitions. (Last month that bloc was reinforced with a new Islamic bloc consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt; pointedly excluding Iran.)

The Baghdad conference would open the way for new Iraq to join the new emerging Arab and Islamic blocs as a partner on the diplomatic scene.

However, diplomatic recognition is not all that Iraq needs. It also needs the cooperation of its neighbors to stem the flow of arms and terrorists.

In that context, two neighbors, Syria and Iran, may come under the spotlight at the Baghdad 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 that "compelling evidence" exists of Iran's efforts to build a network of influence in Iraq, especially in the south.

The Baghdad conference provides an opportunity for developing an international plan to help new Iraq fight its enemies. In that context, it would be hard for Iran and Syria to continue investing in terrorists and/or militias in Iraq.

At the same time, the so-called moderate Arab states that have acted as cheerleaders for insurgents, not to mention their turning a blind eye to the activities of anti-Iraq groups on their soil, would have to abandon such destructive tactics.

New Iraq may need another three years, certainly until after the next general election at the end of 2009 or early 2010, to rebuild its security forces to levels required to end the insurgency and impose effective government presence throughout the nation.

For domestic political reasons, the US may not remain committed to Iraq beyond the Bush presidency. It is, therefore, imperative for new Iraq to find new friends and partners, especially as far as training the security forces and helping protect its extensive borders are concerned. The Baghdad conference could commit the participants to a five-year plan to help rebuild Iraq's military and economic infrastructures.

The conference could play yet another useful role by enabling the Maliki government to make concessions needed on the domestic scene.

Under pressure from problematic Shiite allies who keep his coalition in power, Maliki cannot impose policies needed to reassure the Arab Sunni minority and nonsectarian parties.

These policies include amending the de-Baathification law to end the exclusion of more than a million people from the civil and military service. That would allow large numbers of experienced bureaucrats to help revive the civil service.

Also, tens of thousands of people with experience, purged from the army because of their membership of the Baath, could be recruited by the new 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. The proposed development of federal structures should also be slowed down, allowing the people of Iraq to understand what is at stake before they decide whether they want it or not.

The Baghdad conference is expected to come up with draft proposals for submission to a conference at foreign ministers' level, to be held in Istanbul in April. Rather that staying on the sidelines, smirking in Schadenfreude against the US, the international community must help new Iraq.

But that help must be conditional on Iraqis helping themselves. And that means taking the tough decisions that Maliki and his predecessors have been unwilling and/or unable to make.

 

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