How to make Baghdad conference a landmark

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Saturday’s conference in Baghdad, where the US and fellow permanent members of the United Nations Security Council sit down with Iraq’s neighbours – including Iran and Syria – will be a landmark in Middle East history. Top of the agenda is how to stabilise and rebuild a country broken by invasion and insurgency; but there is a larger regional prize too.

Amid the slow-motion US troop “surge” that so far shows little sign it can establish security, and alongside intensifying sectarian slaughter and no sign of willingness to reconcile between Sunni and Shia, the gathering is a desperate attempt to bring outside pressure to bear on a situation that is perilously close to irretrievable.

It is worth trying. It may, by preventing Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan from being sucked into the ethnosectarian war behind their Iraqi proxies, halt the break-up of Iraq and gradually restrain the violence.

More broadly, this conference presents an opportunity to start a regional diplomatic offensive leading towards an entente between Iran and the US and Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbours, and between Israel and the Arabs, who are to reissue their 2002 land-for-peace offer at a summit in Riyadh on March 28.

The likelihood that this administration headed by President George W. Bush, which has done so much to destabilise the Middle East and destroy America’s reputation and credibility in the Islamic world, will seize this opportunity is admittedly not great. Nevertheless, this is a moment pregnant with possibility as well as peril.

The Saudis, the original authors of the peace plan unanimously adopted by the Arab League at Beirut in 2002, definitely see it this way.

In recent months, faced with the vacuum left by fading US power in the region, they have been forced to shed their traditional diplomatic diffidence.

They may be close to securing a compromise between the Sunni-led government in Lebanon and Hizbollah-led opposition. Last month at Mecca they brokered a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, intended to refloat the boycotted Palestinian government and to renew peace negotiations with Israel.

The Saudis have also engaged directly with the Iranian leadership in an attempt to prevent the Sunni-Shia struggle unbottled by Iraq from going regional. But they are also part of that confrontation, as Sunni champion and guardians of a Wahhabi orthodoxy that treats the Shia as heretics. Put another way, while Iraq’s Arab, Persian and Turkish neighbours have every interest in a stable and united Iraq, it will still require the US and its allies eventually to facilitate and underwrite it.

But the US is in a real mess. Dependent on Tehran-aligned forces in Baghdad and unable to dismantle the Sunni Jihadistan the invasion incubated in western Iraq, the administration is trying to create an Arab Sunni alliance against Iran. How could anyone keep a straight face and call this a strategy?

On the other hand, its Saudi friends are demanding US engagement – with Israel and the Arabs – to deliver a just solution on Palestine: a viable state on the West Bank and Gaza with Arab east Jerusalem as its capital. And its Iranian adversaries are seeking US engagement: to discuss the full range of mutual security concerns, including Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and Iran’s place in the region. Just starting down those two roads would amount to a positive outcome from Baghdad – not just for Iraq but the whole Middle East.

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