Cautious Optimism in Washington

Administration officials in Washington as well as US military and diplomatic circles in Baghdad are taking some encouragement from the hectic peace bargaining going forward in Amman. They note that it is broader-based than the effort Iyad Allawi initiated last year as interim Iraqi prime minister. This time, he has persuaded several key Arab states to throw their weight behind the process and elicited funding from oil emirates. He has moreover drawn in the longest lineup yet seen of Sunni powerbrokers – tribal leaders, guerilla chiefs and Baath leaders. The Amman hub is described by one DEBKA-Net-Weekly Middle East source as a lively Middle East souk crowded with dealers angling for business.

But there are no illusions in Washington or Iraq that the insurgency can be stopped short overnight. The Sunni insurgents are keeping all their options open and will both talk and shoot up until the last minute.

One military expert warned against over-expectations: “We are dealing only with Iraqi Sunnis. The Saudis are out of it. Al Qaeda and Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq group are not at the table at all. In fact, we see evidence that al Qaeda’s Iraq wing is gearing up for a fresh wave of deadly attacks the day after we finalize an accord: They are setting up hideouts, sanctuaries, arms caches, and new escape routes – and not sharing any information with the Sunni guerrillas.

Another military source reckons it will take between six months and a year to bring all terrorist operations to a halt. And even then there will dissident Sunni guerrilla groups still engaged in terrorism.


Negotiating a minefield


American caution is also expressed in their avoidance of their own representatives sitting face to face with Sunni leaders across a negotiating table; they leave the brass tacks discussions to Allawi. The only direct contacts are between US military officers and Sunni insurgent chiefs when the latter seek to discuss limited ad hoc arrangements in specific sectors. It is hard to tell if these are local insurgent initiatives or feelers ordered by their principals at the Amman talks to test the ground and improve bargaining positions.

If American officials are nervous about treading this negotiating minefield, it is also because in the past, Allawi has claimed at least one breakthrough that failed to materialize. They are nonetheless backing him to the hilt. He is their favorite Iraqi statesman, more credible than prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who was received at the White House this week. Another American ally president Jalal Talabani is considered less trustworthy than either.

Therefore, the chances that the five-point accord with the Sunnis taking shape under Allawi’s hands will antagonize Shiites as well as Kurds, does not unduly worry the Bush administration. Washington assumes that once the accord is an accomplished fact, both will be persuaded to jump aboard.

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