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Beyond the Coup Rumors, Options for Iraq

By David Ignatius
Friday, October 13, 2006

As the security situation in Baghdad has deteriorated over the past month, there has been growing talk among Iraqi politicians about a "government of national salvation" -- a coup, in effect -- that would impose martial law throughout the country. This coup talk is probably unrealistic, but it illustrates the rising desperation among Iraqis as the country slips deeper into civil war.

The coup rumors come from several directions. U.S. officials have received reports that a prominent Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlak, visited Arab capitals over the summer and promoted the idea of a national salvation government, suggesting, erroneously, that it would have American support. Meanwhile, top officials of the Iraqi intelligence service have discussed a plan in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would step aside in favor of a five-man ruling commission that would suspend parliament, declare martial law and call back some officers of the old Iraqi army.

Frustration with Maliki's Shiite-led government is strongest among Iraq's Sunni minority, which dominated the old regime of Saddam Hussein. But as sectarian violence has increased, the disillusionment has spread to some prominent Shiite and Kurdish politicians as well. Some are said to support the juntalike commission, which would represent the country's main factions and include former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi -- still seen by some Iraqis as a potential "strongman" who could pull the country back from the brink.

The situation is deteriorating so fast that even radical militia leaders are said to be complaining about the anarchy. Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite firebrand who heads the militia known as the Mahdi Army, recently told a top official of the Iraqi intelligence service that "an increasing number of Shia death squads, operating under the name of his Mahdi Army, are Iranian pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards] staff officers and Hezbollah fighters, who are executing operational activities that he is not aware of, nor can he control," according to one U.S. source.

Bush administration officials have been puzzling over why the coup rumors have become so widespread in Baghdad. One reason is that Iraqis remember the country's history of coups, including the 1958 putsch that overthrew the monarchy and the one in 1968 that brought the Baath Party to power. Another explanation is America's increasingly vocal frustration with Maliki and the perception in Iraq that he has been given a deadline to crack down on militias, or else. Finally, the rumors may reflect ongoing U.S. efforts to reach out to former Baath Party leaders and insurgents in an effort to stabilize the country.

The perception in Baghdad, as in Washington, is that Iraq is nearing the breaking point and that something has to give. But what? When you peel away the "stay the course" rhetoric, the Bush administration's best hope seems to be for a federal solution in Iraq in which the central government devolves power to the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions; oil revenue is shared equitably; the Iraqi army maintains order in unruly areas such as Baghdad; and U.S. forces gradually pull back.

The biggest problem with that strategy is that it would leave the Sunni Triangle as a lawless zone from which terrorists could operate freely. U.S. officials were encouraged by a summit in Baghdad last weekend of Sunni tribal leaders who might be able to contain al-Qaeda forces in their region. But such tribal strategies have failed in the past.

Two opportunities exist over the next few months for creative diplomacy that could begin a process of orderly American withdrawal. The first is a December deadline for renewal of the U.N. legal mandate for coalition forces in Iraq. Maliki has been dragging his feet in seeking parliamentary or other formal Iraqi approval for continued occupation, knowing that in the current environment it would be explosive. But paradoxically, this issue provides a useful chance for U.S.-Iraqi negotiation of a phased timetable for reducing American forces and closing some U.S. bases. That discussion is in everyone's interest.

The second opportunity is the quasi-official mission of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, who co-chairs the Iraq Study Group launched by the U.S. Institute of Peace. Baker believes in talking to everyone, and his team recently met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and Iran's U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif, to discuss ideas for stabilizing Iraq. Though the Washington rumor mill has Baker recommending some form of "federalism-plus" for Iraq, I suspect he'll move in another direction. The architect of the 1991 Madrid peace conference understands that the best chance for a breakthrough that could stabilize Iraq would be part of a broader settlement of Middle East issues. That's an ambitious exit strategy, but it may also be the most realistic one.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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