America’s Promising Talks with Sunnis ‘Late in Coming’

It can hardly have escaped the attention of newspaper readers that the U.S. military is finding it difficult dealing with the Iraqi resistance in the “Sunni Triangle” and Baghdad. Moreover, concern about how the Shiite parties are ruling the southern part of the country is growing. Regional bodies and authorities there are almost exclusively controlled by these parties and their militias, who are also gradually taking over the revamped police force. An Islamic state with a considerable intolerance for dissent is emerging. There is an unmistakable Iranian influence, which has led to an across-the-board exodus by non-Shiites and non-conformers.

Still, the biggest problem remains the inability of coping with the al-Qaeda component of the resistance, which is mainly composed of non-Iraqis and constitutes some five percent of its total strength. The rest is made up of former soldiers and officers from the Iraqi Republican Guard and various security services. In addition, there is the general support of civil servants who were dismissed by the unfortunate U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer. Goaded on by Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, he was ordered to cleanse the upper levels of civil service of any former members of the Baath Party. Under Saddam Hussein, being a Baath Party member was a precondition for any upward movement in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Last summer, a new American ambassador arrived. Unlike his predecessors, he appears eminently qualified for his mission, and has recently begun a dialogue with leading Sunnis, including members of the resistance. These talks are certainly not uninteresting. Their purpose seems to be to take advantage of the mounting tension between Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda and the rest of the resistance. The new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, opened this channel in order to erase the impression that the U.S. is working against the Sunni community.

Khalilzad, who was born in northern Afghanistan, received a scholarship to study at the American University in Beirut and later moved on to universities and think tanks in the U.S. He has worked for the RAND Corporation and has had numerous positions in past Republican administrations.

The American dialogue with the Sunnis is wide-ranging and Khalilzad has simultaneously implemented a host of practical measures that have shown that the U.S. certainly can be supportive of Sunni interests. One such sign was the U.S. raid on an Iraqi Interior Ministry prison, where 173 mostly Sunni prisoners were being kept under deplorable conditions, with some having been tortured.

Furthermore, Khalilzad oversaw a change in the previous policy of excluding both soldiers and civilians from the civil service for having belonged to the Baath Party. This can provide a much needed boost for various ministries and agencies, which are severely lacking in qualified manpower.

With his knowledge of the region, Zalmay Khalilzad is well-versed in Iraqi cultural habits. And according to his former colleague at Columbia, Carter Administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, he is also a pragmatic, broad-minded strategist and a skilled tactician, qualities that are lacking among decision makers in Washington.

Khalilzad wrote his PhD. at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of Professor Albert Wohlstetter. This is where he came into contact with the leading neo-conservatives who were drawn to Wohlstetter, whose influence then also proved essential in establishing connections within the D.C. power elite.

Several witnesses also refer to Zalmay Khalilzad’s ability to socialize, and the unforced way he sits for hours talking with Iraqis, without being disturbed when people come and go. The question, however, is whether he has not been sent to Iraq a little too late?

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