Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.He can be reached at his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
While President Bush insists that the only options in Iraq are “victory or defeat,” there is in fact a wide spectrum of options in between, most of which center around the idea of a negotiated settlement of the war. And the key to such a deal is to trade a pledge for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for a ceasefire and the participation of the nationalist, mostly Sunni-led resistance in a government of national unity. That’s the message from the resistance itself, which also pledges to guarantee the safe departure of U.S. forces from Iraq in the context of a truce. And they want to talk.
In an exclusive interview, a leading Baathist and former Iraqi ambassador to India and Vietnam has called for direct talks between the Iraqi resistance and the United States. The official, Salah al-Mukhtar, also denounced Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for that organization’s attacks on Iraqi civilians.
The comments by Mukhtar, a former Iraqi journalist and information ministry official close to Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s ex-foreign minister now in U.S. custody, came as preliminary results from the December 15 Iraqi election indicated that the coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite religious parties will land atop the permanent government that will be installed next year. If the Shiite religious coalition does emerge victorious, it is likely to mean an intensification of Iraq’s civil conflict and a reinvigorated Sunni resistance. A government led by the pro-Iranian parties will vastly complicate the possibility of talks with the nationalist resistance, since its main parties—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Al Dawa—are staunchly opposed to talks with the Baath Party and its allies, including former Iraqi military leaders and Sunni resistance groups.
In that case, the United States will face a choice between continuing to defend the militant, fundamentalist Shiite regime or clashing with it in support of all-party talks with the Baathists. Mukhtar, who is currently in Yemen, says that the time is right for the Bush administration to open direct negotiations between the United States and the Baath Party, which, he says, is the backbone of the Iraqi resistance movement. “In any war or major crisis, negotiation is the natural eventuality if the two parties to the conflict are willing to put an end to it by peaceful means,” he told me. “You have in the United States a proverb suggesting that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. … The only way out from the deadly situation in Iraq is to negotiate with the Baath Party and resistance leadership, not with any other party.”
He said the demands of the resistance include the full withdrawal of U.S. forces and the reconstruction of the Iraqi state and its armed forces. “In the context of accepting these demands, the peaceful withdrawal of the U.S. army from Iraq will be guaranteed.” (You can read the transcript of Mukhtar’s remarks at The Dreyfuss Report.)
“The leadership of the resistance has declared in many statements that it is willing to negotiate a peaceful solution for the war in Iraq,” he said. “So the ball is now in the court of the United States of America.”
Mukhtar’s offer of talks follows U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s repeated, recent statements in favor of opening talks with the insurgency—although, so far, his initiative has not been echoed by President Bush, Vice President Cheney or other top U.S. officials. Khalilzad made an important distinction between “insurgents” and “terrorists,” signaling that the U.S. embassy views the Baath- and Sunni-led resistance as distinct from Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda. But Mukhtar stressed that so far there have been no substantial contacts between the United States and the Baathists, and he warned that Khalilzad seems intent on splitting the resistance rather than talking with its chief representatives, by talking only with “minor resistance organizations.” He added that U.S. military commanders, on the other hand, “are fully aware that there will be no real solution for the crisis in Iraq without negotiating the major political and military power in Iraq.”
Mukhtar denounced Zarqawi’s forces for seeking to ignite sectarian strife in Iraq by attacking mosques and other civilian targets. “This is not the work of the resistance,” he said. “The armed resistance has condemned many times any attack on civilians, and repeatedly said that the attacks should be concentrated only on invasion armies and the Iraqi agents supporting the invasion.” His comments reflect growing anger and bitterness directed at Zarqawi’s forces in Iraq from the Sunni community. Over the past year, those tensions have erupted into gun battles and open political warfare between the secular Iraqi resistance and the jihadists allied to Al Qaeda.
The resistance inside Iraq, he said, was prepared as early as 2001, when it became clear to the Iraqi leadership that the United States was preparing to invade the country. The Iraqi government organized a vast clandestine force and stockpiled large quantities of weapons and supplies. According to Mukhtar, there is a well-organized underground Baathist central command, based entirely inside Iraq, led mostly by former Iraqi officials including Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who serves as field commander.
The fact that quiet talks between U.S. field commanders, CIA officers and State Department officials with Iraqi resistance groups have been underway since early this year could be a prelude to more serious, all-party talks on ending the war. But to make those talks lead to something productive, the president and the secretary of state have to call for them and endorse them. And they need to expand the proposed February meeting organized by the Arab League into an inclusive forum at which representatives of the Iraqi resistance can take part.