Not Wanted: An Exit Strategy

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 4, 2006

The mostly bad news from Iraq this summer left a lot of people in Washington, including a few in the Bush administration, feeling confused, anxious and doubtful about whether the Iraqi government can deliver on its promise to stabilize the country. As it turns out, some of Iraq's most powerful leaders have had similar feelings as they have watched the news from Washington.

That was the message of a quiet pre-Labor Day visit here by Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has been one of America's key allies in the attempt to replace Saddam Hussein's totalitarianism with a democratic political system. Mahdi is now Iraq's vice president, but he called his meetings with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and key senators and congressmen a "private visit."

In fact, he was here to deliver a message, and ask a question, on behalf of Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who remains Iraq's single most influential figure -- and the linchpin of the past 40 months of political reconstruction. Sistani's message to Bush, Mahdi told a group of reporters I joined last week, was that "Iraqis are sticking to the principles of the constitution and democracy." But the ayatollah wanted to know if the United States is still on board as well.

"It's a critical moment. We want to be sure that we understand perfectly what's going on, and what is the real strategy of the United States in Iraq," Mahdi said. "We read in the press about different perspectives and attitudes. That's why we want to be clear -- whether there is a Plan B."

Mahdi said he got Bush's commitment to stand by the government. But the uncertainty he expressed on behalf of Sistani was real. "When I read the [American] press, I'm confused," said the burly, bearded economist, who was educated in a Jesuit school in Baghdad and later in France and who speaks fluent English.

The worry goes deeper than that caused by growing calls for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops, or by reports that some even in the Bush administration are considering the abandonment of Iraqi democracy. As Mahdi sees it, American and Iraqi agendas are more broadly out of sync. Whether or not they support the government and the war, Americans are looking for ways to quickly reverse -- or escape from -- the deteriorating situation they see on the ground.

Mahdi, Sistani and other Shiite leaders in the government don't share Washington's perception of a downward spiral. They also don't buy the American sense of urgency -- the oft-expressed idea that the new government has only a few months to succeed. Consequently, the many ideas for silver bullets tossed around in the U.S. debate mostly don't interest them.

You could see this in the conversation I joined at Mahdi's suite at the Ritz Carlton hotel. We journalists peppered him with questions about why the formation of a unity government had failed to reduce the violence. We asked about all the options usually talked about in Washington -- from a rewrite of the constitution to a partition of the country; from an international conference to the dispatch of more U.S. troops.

For the most part, our queries were politely and somewhat laconically dismissed. Iraq is not in a civil war, Mahdi said, and doesn't need more U.S. troops. It has a constitution and elected government, and thus there is no need for an international conference. As for constitutional reform, the Shiite and Kurd parties that wrote the charter last year are waiting for proposals from Sunni dissidents. Mahdi added: "So far we have heard nothing."

So what is the solution? "Time -- that is it," Mahdi replied. "A nation like Iraq needs time. The elections for a permanent government happened eight months ago. We have been in office a few weeks. The people who we have in office have never governed. These people come from oppression and a bad political system. We can't import ministers to Iraq. There will be many mistakes. The Americans made many mistakes, and Iraqis had to support that."

"Our options as Iraqis are that we don't have an exit strategy or any withdrawal timetable," Mahdi said, somewhat bitterly. "We simply go on. . . . It is a process, and brick by brick we are working on it."

Mahdi is a brave man, with nerves of steel. Two years ago, while meeting with another group of journalists, he learned that his brother had been killed in an insurgent ambush; he stoically continued to answer questions. Though it's not clear that the government to which he belongs is capable of transcending the sectarian passions of its various parties -- who battle each other in the streets more than they bargain in the cabinet -- there's no question that Mahdi himself, and many other Iraqi politicians, remain deeply committed to the goal of Iraqi democracy.

Whether they can reach it will depend in large part on whether the political skills of leaders such as Sistani will be enough to stop the sectarian warfare before it destroys the political system they created. But it will also matter whether Americans are willing to go on believing in that project, and provide the time for which Mahdi asked.


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