Monday, April 12, 2004

Finally, this administration will negotiate 

The US has signaled its willingness to negotiate settlements to its outstanding conflicts in Iraq. Ceasefires have been called at Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala. It's about time.

Juan Cole has some tips for US negotiators. He explains from a cultural standpoint how the Iraqis are likely to approach mediation.

To be sure, the administration is only now willing to negotiate because it is in a position of profound weakness. Broken supply lines mean that even if US forces may eventually have the ability to retake the lost cities by force, they are not in a position to do so right now. It's hard to find much information right now about the supply problem, but it's not too difficult to guess what's happening. Troops in central Iraq rely on supply routes from the Persian Gulf through Southern Iraq to Baghdad. As long as the Shiite-populated south remained calm, marines fighting in Fallujah could rely on a steady stream of supplies arriving from the south: gasoline, ammunition, and so on. But the Sadrist rebellion has put these supply routes in jeopardy.

Supply problems aside, even if the US military has the ability to put down these twin rebellions by force in the end, trying to do so would surely squander what little political capital the US has left in Iraq. Juan Cole again: "A hated occupier is powerless even with all the firepower in the world." Crushing the current uprising by force is just not worth the price of becoming a "hated occupier."

Let's hope the administration recognizes its weak position and doesn't bring too much high-handed arrogance to the negotiation table. I'm cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the negotiations, especially on the Shiite side. Muqtada al-Sadr has a lot to gain by accepting a compromise. By bringing the Americans to the negotiating table he has already achieved many of his political goals. Not only has he forced Bremer and the CPA to deal with him as an equal, he has also greatly enhanced his stature in the Shiite community (though perhaps not to the level of the Ayatollah Sistani). Since Shiites are a majority in the country, Shiite leaders naturally have the most to gain from the establishment of democratic government in Iraq. Sadr is surely shrewd enough to understand that his swiftest route to power is through elections, rather than a prolonged guerrilla war.
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