Iraq will stand up, but only with U.S.

DAVOS, Switzerland -- The pristine, snowy mountains of this ski town present a picture totally different from scenes of bloody Baghdad.
But Iraq is far from absent at the Davos World Economic Forum, where it is the subject of several high-level panels. I had the chance to talk at length with two of Iraq's smartest and most competent political leaders, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi (a Shiite) and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (a Kurd).
What they said -- about the U.S. troop "surge," the prospects for Iraq's government, and the need for intense Mideast diplomacy to keep the Iraq war from spreading -- should be factored into America's Iraq debate.
Neither Mahdi nor Zebari want U.S. troops to withdraw any time soon; they believe this would plunge Iraq, and probably the region, into greater chaos. However, Mahdi seemed unimpressed by the surge, even as he stressed the urgent need to stabilize Baghdad. He wants Iraqis to be given prime responsibility for security in urban areas.
"Troops is a technical question," he said. "We have to empower Iraqis to be more responsible."
I noted that Iraqis had failed to provide battalions for the last battle of Baghdad and that Sunni civilians fear Iraqi security forces, which are penetrated by Shiite militias.
Most Shiite officials want the United States to let them go after Shiite insurgents in their own fashion.
"If you want to test Iraqis, the Americans should stand aside," Mahdi said. He also stressed that the Americans need to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq that clearly spells out U.S. and Iraqi military responsibilities. Right now, he says, the sovereign Iraqi government has little control over operations. It even has to ask permission for foreign dignitaries to fly through Iraqi airspace and land in Baghdad.
Growing impatience
In other words, the government is growing impatient to run the fighting its way. If the surge fails to stop Sunni insurgent bombs, there may be no choice but to let the Shiite-led government take the lead, with all the risks that entails.
Mahdi was aware, however, that Iraqi security forces can secure the country only if they are loyal to one Iraq, rather than divided by sect and religion. That requires a strong government that can reconcile Shiites and Sunnis while controlling sectarian militias.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak, but Mahdi and Zebari stressed there was no way for the Americans to remove him. However, Mahdi wants a change of cabinet and a new system for choosing ministers. Right now they are all picked according to sect, with a quota for Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties.
The Iraqi vice president wants to change the system so that ministers are picked according to qualifications, especially for key jobs such as interior and defense ministers. I truly wish him good luck.
He is also pressing Maliki to be more conciliatory with Sunnis. So far, there is no sign these efforts have borne fruit, but it's possible a new oil law will soon be passed that gives Sunnis a larger share of revenues (Iraqi oil is in Shiite and Kurdish areas). Let's hope.
Both men stressed the need for more regional diplomacy to keep the Iraqi civil war from turning into a wider regional struggle. Mahdi is heading to Tehran from Davos, and Zebari will soon travel to Saudi Arabia. Both are meeting other Arab leaders at Davos.
Arab foreign ministers
Zebari hopes to convene a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Baghdad in March. The foreign minister's goal is to try to get Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors, along with Iran, to attend a regional conference. His message: If Sunni Arabs fear Iran, they had better build a strong relationship with Shiite Arab Iraqis as a buffer against Iranian Shiites, and Iran will need Iraqi help to calm down Sunni Arabs.
Otherwise, the message goes, Iraq will fall apart, and all of you will suffer, too.
But current U.S. policy is heading in another direction, trying to build an alliance of Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia against Iran.
Iraqi leaders know they must live alongside Iran, with which they share a long border. They don't want U.S.-Iranian grievances fought out on their soil. This is a moment when determined diplomacy on a regional and international level is vital to contain and mitigate the violence in Iraq.
That was the message I heard in Davos.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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