08/25/2007 07:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Coming Change in Iraq

A change must come in Iraq, after the US commander there, David Petraeus, and the US Ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, submit a key report next month on evaluating the results of the US force surge this year, and on the political and security conditions inside Iraq. This change will not be a purely American one; there are indications that it will also be domestic, regional and international. Expressions of frustration and disappointment in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are not transitory, but a sign of the direction inside Iraq toward changing the Prime Minister, if al-Maliki doesn't produce solutions for the domestic political crises, which result from sectarian ways of thinking. The government's performance has become a dangerous obstacle, not just in the American assessment, but also according to an Iraqi evaluation, both inside and outside the government. Thus, Nouri al-Maliki will not be helped by visits to Turkey, Iran and Syria, in which he acts as if he is solving problems with the outside world, while the true crisis is domestic. Also, the timing and content of his visit to Damascus hurt him, since the visit came a few days after the random murder of hundreds of people near the Iraqi-Syrian border, in attacks using truck bombs. High-level Iraqi sources say the trucks came from Syria. These sources say that during his visit, al-Maliki only received expressions of fraternal ties and security cooperation, without guarantees, and no readiness by the Syrian regime to leave behind its basic strategy, i.e. preserving its various "cards." The more important visit was by the French Foreign Minister to Baghdad, since it marked a qualitative transformation in French policy toward Iraq, and because it expressed the new European position, which should encourage wider and deeper Arab roles in Iraq. It should also suggest to Russia to engage in another type of thinking. The door has been opened to see the issue of Iraq move from anger, objections and gloating about the negative outcomes to a new, qualitative discussion about what to do now. Certainly, the foreign minister's visit will be followed by visits to Baghdad by European ministers and officials, while leading Arab countries will enhance their diplomatic and political moves toward Iraq. This is necessary, since the autumn will see an important chapter in the future of Iraq, one that requires regional and international participation of a new, unaccustomed-to level of seriousness.

The change in the French policy has implications that go beyond the Baghdad-Paris bilateral relationship. The new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, now wants a partnership with US President George W Bush in dealing with the Iraqi issue. The previous French government put a distance between itself and Washington, not just during the fundamental dispute over the soundness of the Iraq war, but also during the period of requests for rescue from its predicament. Despite the considerable improvement in Franco-American relations in the last two years, close cooperation has been nearly restricted to Lebanon, and has not improved to the point of turning over a new leaf in Iraq.

What helped Sarkozy accelerate the new policy on Iraq is French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's relationship with that country; he has strong friendships with senior figures in the Iraqi government and, in fact, had a history of opposing the Saddam Hussein regime. He also has clear stances on American military action in Iraq, and is not against it.

Another element assisting the qualitative transformation of France's positions is the effort by Iraqi officials, with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari prominent among them, to convince France and get it involved, to constitute a point of departure for the new European policy, and to act as an incentive for countries that opposed the war to adopt a new role in Iraq today. This is in addition to the visit by the French foreign minister to Baghdad, to encourage Arab countries that have taken steps toward re-opening embassies in Baghdad to accelerate these moves, as a form of positive "embarrassment" for these states.

The issue is not merely one of exchanging ambassadors and opening embassies. It involves the orientation of countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt in this direction. It is an important indicator of the degree to which these states are aware of the magnitude of letting Iraq stumble, as its Arab neighbors observe this tragedy take place. The new orientation is very positive in and of itself; to it we can add opening the door to needed regional roles, so that Iraq does not remain prey to its neighbors Iran and Syria alone. The new vision, which has produced repercussions in the last few weeks, has covered the international support to see Iraq make moves toward all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran. According to those familiar with the initiative, it also covers the "triangle," with Iraq forming its centerpiece, while the US, and France and the UN, form its appendages.

Kouchner took with him to Baghdad a clear vision of France's role in both a European and an international framework. UN Security Council Resolution 1770, which was adopted two weeks ago, talks about expanding the UN's role in Iraq, with prior approval and an invitation from the Iraqi government. The objective of the resolution is to encourage the UN to take up political roles in issues involving a political reconciliation, the Constitution, and strengthening humanitarian roles through assistance and agencies. The importance of this lies in seeing the UN leave behind its restricted role, in Iraq, and in the political approval of countries like Russia and France for an effective role, even though the opposition to the war included France, Germany and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing nationalist tunes these days, in an era of prosperity and money that has been produced by the oil boom in his country. His foreign policy is on "the attack" in most areas, because lying back in a "defensive" corner is a sign of weakness and something rejected by Putin. The most important foundation of his foreign relations are certainly the strong ties - which have the flavor of an alliance - with China; they have reached an unprecedented level in the past few decades. Thus, Russia's positions on Iraq no longer spring from the need for Iraq, its oil and its strategic position; rather, today they are based on Russia's wider policy toward the US and Europe, just as they are regarding Iran, for strategic and oil reasons, in an age of oil axes and alliances.

Meanwhile, the European Union has regained a bit of internal unity on Iraq, which might affect the Russian position, especially since German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in turn moved away from Germany's opposition to the US Administration during the term of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. Some believe that the west's transatlantic unity will send a decisive message to the Iranian leadership, warning it about wagering on a US-European split that will allow it to ignore Security Council resolutions and gain time by going forward with its regional and nuclear aspirations. This might be true, but it requires European decisiveness and an awareness of the deep implications of European positions toward Iran in particular.

The Europeans are clinging to diplomacy and lightweight, gradualist sanctions as a means to force Iran to comply with Security Council resolutions, which call on Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program in exchange for a bundle of enticements and rewards, which include establishing a dialogue with the US. There is no objection to or mistake in this policy, if it truly leads to the results in the nuclear field, and reins in Iranian adventurism in Iraq and Lebanon, represented by arming militias to bring down the state. However, if it is a means of appeasement, diplomacy, excluding the military option, and rejecting painful sanctions that is truly a course that helps the stalling by the clerics' regime in the Islamic Republic, this European school will be asked to review its policies. Positions that have become painful have become useful instead, and the proof of this is clear and plentiful in Lebanon, just as in Iraq and within Iran. The clearest example of this is the role played by the Revolutionary Guards, which some see as a state-within-a-state in the Islamic Republic, although in reality it is a fundamental arm of the clerical regime's strategy of rule in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards are charged with pumping oil, no matter its cost, into the nuclear program, and providing arms to militias like Hizbullah in Lebanon and the extremist militias in Iraq. It is the official arm of extremism and its activity in Iran and regionally is due to a government decision; it is a "state-within-a-state" by official decision of the Iranian government, which reserves to itself in its diplomatic track, a parallel process of contact with Europe.

Europeans have pretended not to see this reality, which is proof of the old European style - and should be reviewed today with courage and determination. If European diplomacy was serious in its insistence about the usefulness of diplomatic and economic pressures instead of military ones, it must be serious in using this pressure. The first bold step to be taken involves halting opposition to the US move toward designating the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. This classification is sound, since the Revolutionary Guards are carrying out terrorist operations and financing terror in more than one place; they are acting against international norms in supporting organizations and militias to bring down governments in neighboring countries and bring down the concept of the state in these countries. In addition, in the US point of view, the Revolutionary Guards have carried out and are carrying out actions in Iraq targeting US forces, which have killed a number of American troops. Classifying the Guards as a terrorist organization involves tangible steps and dimensions, with economic aspects the most prominent. Such a move could lead to European and Asian banks and importers in Europe and Asia reevaluating and limiting their dealings with the Revolutionary Guards, if the "terrorist" designation is applied. This is a better option than the military one, to confront the insistence by the Islamic Republic's leadership to escalate and intervene regionally and internationally. Since this critical moment in international relations is particularly important for Iran, as it is for Iraq, this "qualitative discussion" has become necessary, since September will be a decisive month for Iraq and Lebanon, when it comes to Iranian and Syrian roles that require precise monitoring.

The visits by the Iraqi prime minister to Turkey, Iran and Syria came at a time in which security problems have increased with Damascus, and the pace of US pressure on Iran has also picked up. The security meeting of Iraq's neighbors, in Damascus, only a few days apart after the visit by Nouri al-Maliki only produced a definition and enumeration of the problems, and set down mechanisms that did not involve a true political will for positive cooperation, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The sources believed that Syria was behaving as if it is the winner, and thus was not engaging in serious security cooperation. "The Syrian position is: no bribes and no enticements with economic promises will make us deviate from our strategy," i.e. the strategy of maintaining its cards of sabotage in Iraq.

The delegation headed by al-Maliki during his visit to Damascus spoke about security first, then economic deals. The Syrian response involved seeing security and deals "coinciding," in an indication of an implicit acknowledgment of the Syrian role in security formulas in Iraq, and Syria's desire to make deals of another kind. Despite the talk of floating agreements and the vision of "enabling cooperation and interaction in the security and economic fields," al-Maliki's visit to Damascus only produced expressions of Iraqi "flexibility" in the economic domain and Syrian "conditions" in the security realm. This in turn has aggravated the criticisms directed at al-Maliki for his visit, which was badly timed, and for his statements that indicated a flight forward, trying to blame others, while the political situation has seen the collapse of domestic political accord during his tenure.

The American frustration is clear, obvious and real, because of the slow political reconciliation and because the Iraqi government has failed to implement its promises. The administration of George W Bush, and important elements in Congress - Democrat and Republican - have expressed their "frustration" with al-Maliki and their "loss of patience." Carl Levin, a leading Democratic senator, called upon his return from Iraq a loss of confidence in al-Maliki, and urged the Iraqi Parliament to replace him and his government with a "less sectarian" and "more unifying" government for Iraq. The US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, warned that the American administration's support for al-Maliki's government did not mean a blank check, and that political progress has been "disappointing."

On Wednesday, President Bush himself toned down his anger at al-Maliki when he called him a "good person doing a difficult job, and I support him." However, Bush did not back down from what he said only 24 hours previously, on the sidelines of a US-Mexico-Canada summit in Quebec: "The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people? If the government doesn't respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government. That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians." Although the US president toned down his positions, he said in his address in Kansas City on Wednesday that "it's not up to politicians in Washington to say if (al-Maliki) will stay in his post. It's up to the Iraqi people, who are now living in a democracy, and not a dictatorship."

Al-Maliki considered these statements "outside the bounds of political and diplomatic protocol." What's important is that the US positions and statements are not out of bounds; they represent a halt in embracing the al-Maliki government without accountability. As a source close to the contexts of decision making in Iraq said, "Bush is sticking with al-Maliki right now. It's a qualitative change, instead of an absolute defense of al-Maliki, Bush is saying that "it's up to the Iraqi people". and "this position has implications."

Forms of US pressure on al-Maliki will increase after Petraeus and Crocker submit their report next month, which is expected to say: there has been security progress and economic progress, but we cannot live with the political disintegration. Petraeus will talk about the surge of US troops and its success in turning Sunnis against al-Qaida, and changing the equation in Anbar province. However, he will say that these successes are not sustainable if political disintegration continues. The Iraqi deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, acknowledged that the situation is special "and we must, in the Iraqi leadership, admit the extent of the problem - if not, it will be a disaster." Other Iraqi leaders have also acknowledged that Iraq is at a decisive crossroads; they pointed out that everyone is waiting for the Petraeus-Crocker report, whether Iraqis who oppose the government, or states that have problems with the al-Maliki government.

A change is coming, not by suspending the Constitution, but through measures within the government and via the four-party alliance that supports the government and is working with it to give it more time. If there is no tangible progress, everyone will begin thinking of an "alternative", as a leading figure in Iraq put it. The final decision is not purely Iraqi and not purely American, but also Iranian as well. This is where the tug-of-war begins, in the fall, which might be a hot season, after a relatively cool summer.