Continuing violent insurgency, the looming June 30 transfer of sovereignty and the dynamics of the American electoral campaign are intensifying pressures on the United States to get out of Iraq sooner rather than later. What if Iraq can't be fixed? What are the options?
Partition is one. But then what happens in Baghdad, where perhaps 800,000 Kurds live, quite separated from their beloved Kurdistan? The 2 million Shiites of Baghdad -- where do they go? Not to mention the impact on our Turkish allies -- who fear separatism among Kurds there -- as well as disruption of the regional balance of power and destabilization of other countries with large minorities.
Another option is the strongman: King Abdullah of Jordan suggests we find someone like that to preside over a relatively benevolent and modernizing autocracy. But what do we do if he turns out not so benevolent, or falls to rebellion by the likes of the Shiite demagogue Moqtada Sadr?
Aggressive internationalization is another approach, with the European Union and the United Nations playing stronger roles. Are others prepared to ante up? I talked with European experts on Iraq recently in Brussels. The political debate throughout the Continent, they said, is mainly about withdrawal. None knew of plans -- other than Britain's -- to contribute additional troops or expand assistance.
The ultimate option is to throw Iraq away. The polls show that Iraqis oppose the occupation. We could set a date certain for withdrawal. What's wrong with that?
Plenty. I have recently returned from Baghdad, where the U.S. Institute of Peace conducted a workshop on facilitating inter-ethnic dialogue for 45 provincial government and civil society leaders. They came from the north-central governorates of Iraq, where the bulk of its mixed population of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Turkomen, Yezidi and others have lived side by side for generations: from the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, from the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, from the central Iraqi city of Baqubah and from the metropolis of Baghdad. Some were Islamists, some secularists. Some had resisted Hussein, but at least two fought in the Iraqi army against the Americans.
They ran a gantlet of bandits, checkpoints, armed militias, threats and the coalition forces to get to the Green Zone convention center, where for five days they spent eight hours a day, listening attentively and participating energetically in simulated negotiations and facilitated discussions on the future of Iraq.
The morning after the assassination of the Governing Council president, Izzedin Salim, by a suicide bomb that rocked our meeting room, the participants in our workshop were back in their seats at 9 a.m. And they stayed in their seats even after two mortar shells struck the convention center compound, causing the room to tremble again.
While I was in Baghdad, my colleagues in Washington were training a comparably diverse group of newly minted national security officials from the ministries of defense, justice and foreign affairs.
Polls do not capture the complicated and sometimes confusing ideas and emotions of these Iraqis. They are not all enthusiasts for the Americans. A few even think the daily violence is an American plot to allow the coalition to strengthen its hold on the country.
But at the same time these Iraqis want to play a role in making their country secure, democratic and prosperous. They want the intervention to succeed in producing a new Iraq. Despite their diversity, Iraqis share a common enemy -- the Hussein regime, which still lives in their minds' eye -- and a common purpose: to overcome their past and create a better future.
There are many more Iraqis like those I have met. A core of courageous activists is creating civil society in Iraq. One thousand nongovernmental organizations have officially registered. More than 2,000 Iraqis applied for seven high-risk positions on the electoral commission. To be sure, jobs are scarce, but in the midst of concerted violence it is more than the need for a paycheck that inspires Iraqis to apply.
What happens if the intervention fails, or if the United States withdraws prematurely on a schedule determined by Washington's requirements? Iraqis who want a peaceful, democratic country will be in mortal danger. Iraq will sink into chaos, civil war or renewed authoritarianism. The United States is often criticized for first encouraging and then abandoning the Shiite rebellion of 1991, at the cost of thousands of lives. Yet some would now propose that we do likewise with the entire country of Iraq.
The mistakes the United States has made in Iraq should not lead us into one more even greater error, forced by the dynamic of our own election campaign rather than by the ripeness of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Even if you think the war was wrong, the peace should still be right. Success in the effort to give Iraqis a chance to build a free society will set back extremism in the Muslim world and be a major step in the right direction for the Middle East.
The writer is director of peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace. The views here are his own.