-- Iraq's new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, calls it his program of "outreach." Over the past several weeks, he says, he has been meeting secretly with supporters of the Iraqi resistance to offer them amnesty and a chance to participate in the political process of the new Iraq.
The risky clandestine meetings are the most intriguing of a series of stability efforts Allawi outlined in an interview here Tuesday. The conversation was his clearest public explanation yet of how he hopes to work with the internal opposition, and with neighboring governments such as Syria and Iran, to reduce the chaos plaguing his country. Since becoming prime minister last month, Allawi has projected an image of a burly ex-Baathist who is tough enough to manage this unruly country. Among the dozen or so Iraqis I've queried about him, most expressed the hope that, as one man put it, "he's not going to be intimidated by anyone." Allawi said his secret contacts with "fringes of the resistance" took place at various locations outside the protected Green Zone in Baghdad, including at his own house. He said the meetings had included some former officers of the Special Republican Guard, some hard-line supporters of Saddam Hussein and some Islamist radicals.
"I told them, 'Look, if you want to bring Saddam back, Saddam is part of history. If you want to bring Osama bin Laden to Iraq, then I will fight you to the death. If you want to be part of the political process, you are most welcome.' It was a very frank and open discussion," Allawi said. "I told them that what they are doing will result in nothing. The Iraqi people have decided to move with the cause of democracy, and this is what we are going to do. . . . I told them, 'We are part of you and you are part of us.' "
Allawi said that in the meetings, he invited opposition members who haven't committed any crimes to join the political process, "whether you have Islamist theories, or nationalistic, or whatever." But he cautioned them that, in his view, Iraq still needs the stabilizing presence of the U.S.-led coalition, "and if, God forbid, they decide to withdraw from Iraq, Iraq will turn into a bloodbath."
These covert contacts have already had some effect, Allawi contended -- especially in causing a split between the Iraqi resistance and foreign jihadists who have poured into the country. He cited the case of Fallujah, a city to the west of Baghdad that has been a center of Sunni resistance. When he met last week with a delegation from Fallujah, Allawi said, they admitted that 150 foreign fighters had been operating there -- and said that they are now pressuring them to leave.
An example of Allawi's outreach came Tuesday. He delayed the interview an hour so that he could meet with a visiting delegation of Sunni clerics from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, which in recent weeks has been spinning out of control. Allawi said they had discussed how "to try and apprehend the foreign terrorists who are operating there."
"The Iraqis . . . have realized that they should not be used by the foreign elements," Allawi said. If the Iraqi resistance has really broken with foreign backers in cities such as Fallujah, that would be a huge step forward for the government, but there is no way to verify Allawi's claims.
Allawi laid out the other key element of his security strategy, which is to work with neighboring countries that can help Iraq secure its borders. He said Syrian President Bashar Assad has indicated he will discuss new ways to police the frontier and control anti-government forces that may be operating from Syria. Allawi also disclosed that he had sent a letter to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami "asking him to help us and stand with us" and promising not to allow Iraq to be used as a base "to interfere with the interests of Iran."
To gain more regional support for stabilizing Iraq, Allawi has asked foreign ministers of neighboring states to meet next week, and for interior ministers to hold a similar gathering soon after that. His goal, he said, is "to ensure that there is a platform for governments of the neighborhood to cooperate and bring [violence] under control."
Talk about stabilizing Iraq has mostly been just that -- a wish list that has melted in the furnace of the Iraqi insurgency. The practical steps Allawi described Tuesday are just a beginning. But I feel confident, after many visits to this country since the war began, that this is a direction most Iraqis want to move.