Should the United States attack Iran, which side would the Iraqi government support? The answer to that simple question is far from clear, despite the thousands of lives and billions of dollars we have sacrificed to support the ruling coalition in Baghdad. While the Bush administration seeks to isolate and even overthrow the Iranian regime, as well as its Syrian ally, its partners in Iraq are establishing closer relationships with both.

Indeed, the most powerful elements of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political coalition regularly collude with the Iranian intelligence apparatus — which the Bush administration has accused of arming the insurgents and terrorists who are attacking our forces, committing sectarian atrocities and undermining the new Iraqi democracy. The Maliki government has resumed diplomatic relations with Syria, signed a billion-dollar aid agreement with Iran and encouraged the expansion of Iranian consulates and border stations.

Friendship with Iran and Syria is endorsed not only by Shiite fundamentalists such as Moqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army warlord, and his rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, chief of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq — but also by President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Kurdish leaders who believe in secular democracy and actually like the United States.

Nothing better illustrates the profound differences between the U.S. and Iraq over relations with Iran than the recent raid by American soldiers on an Iranian office in the northern city of Irbil, where they arrested five alleged Iranian subversives. During a tense confrontation, the Americans faced the cocked weapons of Kurdish troops, who surrounded the Iranian facility.

Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, described those prisoners as “foreign intelligence agents in this country, working with Iraqis to destabilize Iraq and target coalition forces that are here at Iraq’s request.” But Zebari rejected that accusation and demanded their immediate release. He told the Los Angeles Times that his government’s policy is to “engage [Iran] constructively” — notably in a security agreement just signed between the two countries.

So in Iraq, the friends of our enemies are … our best and only friends.

That lethal contradiction is among the many reasons why the president’s plan to send more troops to Iraq won’t achieve his objectives — and why the basic framework of his policy is fundamentally flawed.

What will happen when five additional American combat brigades arrive in Baghdad during the next several months? According to the Bush theory, they will combine with the Iraqi army and national police to establish security while suppressing both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

In reality, the probable result is that the Shiite militias will temporarily disappear, while the joint American-Iraqi operations finish disarming and driving out the Sunni rebels. Then the Shiite militias will reappear — as they certainly will if the United States engages in hostile action against Iran.

As an American military official complained bitterly to The New York Times, “We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn.”

Nothing proposed by President Bush in his “new way forward” speech solves this conundrum. Instead, he and his aides pretend that the Middle East is now divided between “reformers and responsible leaders” in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, versus Iran and Syria. So said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Jan. 11, when she declared that the president’s escalation represents a “regional strategy.”

She was wrong, as usual.

There is no such simple divide in the Middle East. Even Israel has been secretly negotiating with the Syrians through third parties over the past two years, as revealed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. For the United States to rule out discussion with the Iranians or the Syrians — while the Iraqis exchange diplomats and sign agreements with those governments — is not a regional strategy. It is merely the residue of strategic failure.

The only “new” way forward in Iraq and the Middle East, as the study group led by James Baker III and Lee Hamilton explained, is the same as the old way forward: broad negotiations among the conflicting parties, sponsored by the United States and its traditional allies, to achieve political solutions. Among other things, that would mean inviting the Syrians and the Iranians into regional discussions on the security of Iraq.

Whenever the Democratic leaders in Congress grow weary of hearing that they have no alternative to Bush’s plan, they could do much worse than to adopt the entirely sane Baker-Hamilton report.

Copyright 2007, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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