The success of the Arab-League orchestrated ''Reconciliation Conference'' in Cairo underlines the shortcomings of the Bush administration's unilateral, guns-and-puppets strategy in Iraq and creates an opening for a negotiated solution among the main Iraqi factions.
In addition to more than 100 Shiites, Sunni and Kurdish participants, the Cairo conference was attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. But there were no U.S. officials. The gathering was strongly supported not only by the Arab League but also by the United Nations, European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
According to press reports, the conference produced a clear Iraqi statement calling for withdrawal of occupation forces. With a full-fledged peace conference scheduled for February, it is time for Washington to end its foot-dragging and get squarely behind the peace process started at Cairo -- and specifically the initiative for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Bush administration officials were not able to prevent Iraqi interim president Jalal Talabani and other senior government leaders from going to Cairo, but those Iraqi officials, in a sop to Washington, did avoid taking part in the ''closed-door sessions'' of the three-day conference. Even so, the Iraqi participants displayed surprising willingness to make the compromises necessary to reach consensus on getting occupying forces out of Iraq.
At the conclusion of the conference, Iraqi Interim President Talabani made an unprecedented offer:
``If those who describe themselves as Iraqi resistance want to contact me, they are welcome . . . I am committed to listen to them, even those who are criminals.''
One main purpose of the Reconciliation Conference was to engage the Sunni more in the political process, taking advantage of the fact that several of the Sunni participants have close ties with Sunni insurgents. Holding out an olive branch to the Sunnis, the conference acknowledged, ''National resistance is a legitimate right of all nations,'' and included only a generic condemnation of terrorism.
This and other language in the communiqué serve to undercut Bush administration attempts to paint Sunnis as either Saddam loyalists or al Qaeda collaborators.
Washington's initial reaction seemed designed to put Talabani and other compromise-leaning Iraqi officials in their place. Addressing the issue of troop withdrawal, State department spokesman Justin Higgins said:
``Multinational forces are present in Iraq under a mandate from the U. N. Security Council. As President Bush has said, the coalition remains committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve security and stability as they rebuild their country. We will stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer.''
The communiqué's call for establishing a timetable for withdrawal seriously undercuts arguments by administration and nervous Democrats that announcing a timetable for withdrawal would only encourage the insurgency.
The way is now clear for Washington to support the process set in motion in Cairo. This would mean ending objections to a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. But with the ''Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal'' and neoconservative policymakers still in charge, and jittery Democrats only slowly seeing the light, it is doubtful that the administration will seize the opportunity offered by the Cairo conference -- even though doing so would probably enhance Republican chances in next year's mid-term elections.
But other pressures are also building. According to Time magazine, combatant colonels fighting the war in Iraq have gone behind Rumsfeld's back to spill their guts to Senate Armed Forces Committee Chair John Warner.
So far there is still little sign that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-neoconservative junta will be able to veer from its current predilection to self-destruct. The president's embedded advisors still seem to believe they can make the facts -- and history itself -- conform to their ideological vision and have showed little concern for the beads of sweat glistening on the foreheads of Republican congressional candidates. But it is still early. Stay tuned; this can change.
Ray McGovern is a member of the steering group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years.
© 2005 Miami Herald