Out of Iraq

President Bush wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as possible. For this he needs a little help from the Iraqis, the Iranians - and even the Syrians

A narrow and picturesque mountain road leads from the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah to the estate of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the small, lakeside town of Duhan. About two years ago, when I visited Duhan, only a handful of bored Peshmerga militias guarded Talabani's estate. He was not yet president then and merely controlled the complex Kurdish political scene. Since April 2005, when he was appointed president, Talabani has divided his time between tranquil and heavily guarded Duhan, and Baghdad. This week, from Duhan, he dealt with yet another of the frequent crises that wrack the so-called nation of Iraq. This time the issue was the American "threat" to overturn the government of Nouri al-Maliki because, in the opinion of the Americans, he is not acting effectively to advance the departure of coalition troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi press has already published reports of the "expected revolution," of the "forced ouster of the prime minister" and, in particular, of the preparations being made by the Americans to find an alternate prime minister. Washington's problem with al-Maliki is not new and does not relate merely to him. President George Bush is in a hurry to foist Iraq off on someone else and, as his adversaries in Washington are demanding, to formulate an agreed timetable for a withdrawal. That is why he is passing the buck and demanding that the Iraqis come up with a timetable for the disarmament of the militias.

Who are these armed militias? Every government ministry (there 37 of them) has its own army. Every political faction or party has its own army and every tribal head has his own army. This, of course, is in addition to the official army of Iraq and the official army of Talabani himself, the Peshmerga force that is in charge of the security of Kurdistan.

Disarmament in Iraq, just as in Lebanon or Palestine, is not a simple matter, since who will be the first to agree to do so? And is it at all possible to achieve a simultaneous disarmament? Washington believes that if a schedule for this is announced, it will get things moving. However, al-Maliki believes that fixing a timetable will merely deepen the armed struggle. He would like to do things differently: to first release prisoners from the various factions, including those with American blood on their hands, and only after such a confidence-building move, to start talking about a timetable for disarmament.

Talabani agrees that this is the right step and actually announced that the government will start discussing a law for a general amnesty. Only a few months ago, it was Washington that was terrified of granting pardons on a widespread basis, and now that the Iraqis are suggesting this as a way out, Washington is agreeing. Furthermore, Washington is putting pressure on the Iraqi government to speak with militia heads who in any other situation would probably be called "terrorist leaders." al-Maliki's lack of help in this regard is annoying the Americans who have already themselves begun direct contacts with some of the heads of these militias.

Washington has also agreed to the suggestion that it start talking with Iran about Iraq. Its agreement was so strong that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could not contain herself and mentioned contacts with Iran. Tehran - which had already agreed that the secretary general of its national security council, Ali Larijani, should be sent to talk with the American ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad - was scared off by the publicity and changed its mind. The contacts have been delayed but not cut off. When there is talk of pulling out of Iraq, one can also begin to speak with the so-called Axis of Evil.

And what about Syria? President Talabani this week proposed to Washington that it also speak with Syria about what is happening in Iraq, although he had doubts about Syria's ability to contribute anything. It is possible that, in the not-too-distant future, we will hear about a senior American emissary who is on his way to Damascus to discuss "joint interests" in Iraq. Perhaps even next week.

But it is not only the principle of not speaking with terrorists and pushing the Axis of Evil into a corner that has been breached in Iraq. Another important principle - to avoid dividing Iraq into federal districts and to maintain the country's unity - is also about to be destroyed.

True, the constitution speaks of a federation, as does a law that was adopted a month ago, but the United States always promised its allies in the Middle East, particularly Turkey which fears a Kurdish state, that it will not lend a hand to dividing Iraq. But this week, the American ambassador, the very same Khalilzad, explained to the Kurdish leaders who are demanding autonomy, that America "is not opposed to this idea," but that it is up to the people of Iraq to make the decision. This is a polite way for Washington to give the principle of non-division a slap in the face.

What will, therefore, remain of all those principles that have guided U.S. policy in Iraq? Democracy? On condition that it is directed by Washington. Talks with terrorists? On condition that they free America from Iraq. And dividing up Iraq? On condition that this will promise a greater degree of security.