Leaders want U.S. to stay on while Iraqis stand up

DAVOS, Switzerland — DAVOS, Switzerland -- The pristine, snowy mountains of this ski town present a picture totally different from scenes of bloody Baghdad. But Iraq is far from absent at the Davos World Economic Forum, where it is the subject of several high-level panels.

I had the chance to talk at length with two of Iraq's smartest and most competent political leaders, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi (a Shiite) and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (a Kurd). What they said - about the U.S. troop "surge," the prospects for Iraq's government, and the need for intense Mideast diplomacy to keep the war from spreading - should be factored into America's Iraq debate.


Neither Mr. Mahdi nor Mr. Zebari wants U.S. troops to withdraw any time soon; they believe this would plunge Iraq, and probably the region, into greater chaos. However, Mr. Mahdi seemed unimpressed by the surge; he wants Iraqis to be given prime responsibility for security in urban areas.

But Iraqis failed to provide battalions for the last battle of Baghdad, and Sunni civilians fear Iraqi security forces, which are penetrated by Shiite militias.


Most Shiite officials want the United States to let them go after Shiite insurgents in their own fashion. "If you want to test Iraqis, the Americans should stand aside," Mr. Mahdi said. He also stressed that the Americans need to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq that clearly spells out U.S. and Iraqi military responsibilities. Right now, he says, the sovereign Iraqi government has little control over operations.

The government is growing impatient to run the fighting its way. If the surge fails to stop Sunni insurgent bombs, there may be no choice but to let the Shiite-led government take the lead, with all the risks that entails. Mr. Mahdi was aware, however, that Iraqi security forces can secure the country only if they are loyal to one Iraq, rather than divided by sect and religion. That requires a strong government that can reconcile Shiites and Sunnis while controlling sectarian militias.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak, but Mr. Mahdi and Mr. Zebari stressed there was no way for the Americans to remove him. However, Mr. Mahdi wants a change of Cabinet and a new system for choosing ministers. Right now they are all picked according to sect, with a quota for Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. The Iraqi vice president wants to change the system so that ministers are picked according to qualifications, especially for key jobs such as interior and defense ministers. He is also pressing Mr. al-Maliki to be more conciliatory with Sunnis. So far, there is no sign these efforts have borne fruit, but it's possible a new oil law will soon be passed giving Sunnis a larger share of revenues (Iraqi oil is in Shiite and Kurdish areas).

Both men stressed the need for more regional diplomacy to keep the Iraqi civil war from turning into a wider regional struggle. Mr. Zebari hopes to convene a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Baghdad in March. The foreign minister's goal is to try to get Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors, along with Iran, to attend a regional conference. His message: If Sunni Arabs fear Iran, they had better build a strong relationship with Shiite Arab Iraqis as a buffer against Iranian Shiites, and Iran will need Iraqi help to calm down Sunni Arabs. Otherwise, the message goes, Iraq will fall apart, and all of you will suffer, too.

But current U.S. policy is heading in another direction, trying to build an alliance of Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia against Iran. The two Iraqi leaders understand America's worries about Iran, but they fear overt confrontation with Tehran could fuel Iraq's civil war and explode the region. Iraqi leaders know they must live alongside Iran, with which they share a long border. They don't want U.S.-Iranian grievances fought out on their soil. This is a moment when determined diplomacy on a regional and international level is vital to contain and mitigate the violence in Iraq.

That was the message I heard in Davos.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is