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Iraq is Back

By Trudy Rubin

Iraq is back.

The story is back on page one and back in the presidential primaries.

Has any political progress been made? And how long should we stay? (John McCain just said 100 years was "fine with me.")

Having traveled to Baghdad last month, I can tell you that things in Iraq are much better than Democrats want to believe. But the current situation makes Republicans who prate of "victory" look foolish.

Everything is in flux. There are possibilities for Iraqi political progress in coming months, but they could be dissipated. How soon we can withdraw substantial forces depends largely on whether the next president has a more realistic strategy for the region than George W. Bush.

The key change in Iraq, which makes other changes possible, is that the sectarian violence has lessened.

"It is not over," Iraq's shrewd foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told me, "but it has died down. There are still hot coals under the ashes, but the overall atmosphere has changed."

But as critics of Bush policy point out, the expressed purpose of the "surge" - as laid out by Gen. David Petraeus - was to provide calm and space for Iraqi sectarian factions to formally reconcile. This was supposed to be the prerequisite for American troops to depart.

The political benchmarks set by the Iraqis - proposed laws that were supposed to ease the tensions between ethnic and sectarian groups - have mostly languished without passage. No one is certain of the impact of the law, finally passed this week, to permit former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to regain jobs and pensions.

More important are other developments going on further from public view.

One important development is the beginning of feelers across sectarian lines to create new political movements. Right now, most of Iraq's political parties are based on sect or religion. But leaders of the largest Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), are meeting with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province who are thinking of forming new Sunni political parties. There is talk of a possible new Shiite-Sunni political alliance in the next parliamentary elections. This kind of alliance might do an end run around the insular Shiite Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and around the more sectarian Sunni parties now in the parliament.

In other words, security gains on the ground are encouraging new political thinking which will take more time to jell.

There is also new strategic thinking among Iraqi leaders. I talked with Shiite Vice-President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who has been pushing for years for a status of forces agreement with the United States that would regulate the number and role of U.S. forces. Such an agreement will now be negotiated this year.

"Now we are all prepared for negotiations," Mahdi says. "Our long-term relationship will be defined. No one is talking about bases, even the Americans. They are talking about facilities, training, airfields." Mahdi said Iraqis still needed "a strong partner" and urged Americans to have patience. "We need time to bring Iraqis to political maturity," he pleaded. But he thought that U.S. troop levels could "go down by half in the next year or two."

Of course many will question how much leverage the Iraqis will have in such talks, but, if security improves, I think that leverage will increase.

And Mahdi put forward another proposal that I think is key to stability in Iraq.

Until now, Iraqi leaders were leery of any regional security arrangement that included Sunni Arab states, Iran and the United States, because they thought the Sunni Arabs might gang up against Shiite-led Iraq. But the Iraqi outlook has changed as relations with Sunni Arab states have improved.

"Now we think we need a regional pact to stabilize things - an agreement in which all can participate and be real partners, including Iran and Turkey.

"The United States should play a helpful role," he added. "We understand we can't [do a regional pact] without a dialogue between the United States and Iran." That kind of dialogue has not been on the agenda of the Bush White House.

This brings me back to the U.S. election campaign. Those candidates who want to help Iraq need to pay attention to what Iraqi leaders are saying. Anger at past Bush administration mistakes shouldn't cause candidates to overlook progress.

There is an urgent need for this kind of serious regional diplomacy, which the Bush administration has steadfastly avoided - for a pact that would give Iraq's neighbors a vested interest in aiding, not interfering, with Baghdad's future. This is the strategy that should be promoted by Democrats who want to bring the troops home.

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