Sunday, December 03, 2006

Saudi writer: Will Bush know enough to look for a negotiated solution, or will he just carry on trying to inflame the Arab regimes against Iran ?

Bilal al-Hassan is writes a regular political column for Asharq al-Awsat. (He happens to be Palestinian, apparently the younger brother of one of the longest-serving "historical Fatah" figures and former Arafat associates Hani al-Hassan). His column today (Sunday December 3) on Iraq and the Bush administration is notable for a number of reasons. Here is a summary of his argument:

While the Bush administration seems to be rejecting the idea of talks with Syria and Iran, this would be a mistake, because these are two countries through which fighters and weapons transit to Iraq, and serious discussions with them could result in putting a stop to that, thus contributing greatly to Iraqi internal stability. Moreover, there are indications that both Syria and Iran are being amenable. For instance, Syria refused the invitation to participate in a three-way summit in Tehran, out of deference to the Arab position; and Iran, for its part, has said there is an important role in the Iraq-pacification process for both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Bush administration, al-Hassan says, should pay careful heed to these signs.

More important is the question of defining what the Iraqi problem is, and here al-Hassan cites statements by Maliki, (parliament president) Mashhadani, and Talabani, all indicating that the problem, far from being exclusively a security problem, is first and foremost a political problem, and the security problems derive from that.

Al-Hassan says a number of conclusions and requirements for action derive from that: (1) There has to be a real American troop-withdrawal, according to a well-defined and thought-out schedule. (2) The Iraqi constitution, whose outlines were first drawn up under the Bremer regime, fosters sectarianism and militates against a sense of national identity (apparently referring to the party-list proportional representation voting system), and this needs to be changed. (3) The concept of federal regions is also a problem. (He adds here in the regional context, partition is something that "is rejected by the Arabs and by the Turks, but it is sufficiently clear that it is not rejected by Iran"). Here too the solution is a new constitution, that would better found the notion of national identity.

Putting this another way, al-Hassan says the answer to Iraq's problems doesn't lie in the direction of the recent "Mecca document", which was a call to end sectarian violence in and of itself; nor in the direction of a Kosovo-style international conference of the type suggested by Kofi Annan, rather it requires a new Iraqi constitution. (Here al-Hassan refers to work already being done by something called the Institute for Studies in Arab Unity in Beirut, and he mentions its leader, one Khayr al-Din Hasib).

Finally, al-Hassan says it is worth studying the differences in approach between the Iranian concept and the Saudi concepts of how to proceed. Based on newspaper reports, he said, the Iranian idea is first to insist on American withdrawal based on a fixed timetable. Secondly (and al-Hassan says he sees a contradiction here), the Iranian plan is for formation of a central government, but also for formation of "Iraqi federalism based on the existing central government". The third Iranian point (according to al-Hassan) is a "rejection of going back to traditional politics in the region, at the expense of the existing system, [in other words rejection of] a return to the exclusion of the Shiite majority from power, which would only increase the chances of separation [of Iraq into three parts]".

Al-Hassan summarizes his criticism of the Iranian approach as follows: It would do away with the American occupation, but it would retain all of the internal fragmentation that went with it. So this should be a point of discussion with the Iranians.

The Saudi approach, he says, was laid down in a cabinet decision of November 27 (the first Saudi cabinet meeting following the famous Cheney visit), and it includes the following main points: (1) Emphasis on regional and historical "balance", which means treating the question of Shiite Sunni balance on a regional basis, and not just on an Iraqi basis; and (2) finding ways to convert the American "occupation" to UN "supervision", for which the Security Council would have to take the initiative.

Al-Hassan says on the face of it this is the Iranians siding with the Shiites and Saudi siding with the Sunni, but he says there is a way of mediating that: Via his idea of a new constitution that would foster national identity at the expense of sectarian identity.

The question, al-Hassan says, is Bush. Will he rest content with just having meetings, or will he have the capacity to grasp the political problem in its entirely, a political problem, he adds, which is of his own creation and that of his military leaders. Will he look for solutions, or will he satisfy himself with continuing his inflammatory remarks against Iran, and his attempt to marshall the Arab regimes against that country? Will he keep up with his slogans about not leaving until the task is done, or will he remember that it is permitted for him to act as the leader of a country, and not just as the leader of a military organization?


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