"Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, said Wednesday that “terrorists and death squads” were responsible for the surge in sectarian killings here in recent weeks, and that there might be a need to move more American forces into the capital to prevent the deadly cycle from worsening...
In a speech on Tuesday in Washington, the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said retributive sectarian violence had overshadowed the three-year-old Sunni insurgency as the single biggest challenge to the nation’s stability.
A similarly blunt assessment, portraying Iraq as a nation on a precipice, was also offered by Mr. Maliki, who said in his speech to Parliament on Wednesday morning that his national reconciliation plan was "the only and last way to save the security and the political situation in this country."
"We all have this last chance to reconcile and work hard to avoid the conflict and the blood," Mr. Maliki added. "If it fails -- God forbid --I don’t know what will be Iraq’s fate."
I attended a news conference with U.S. ambassador to Iraq Khalilzad at CSIS and he similarly seconded the idea that the reconciliation process was essential. There were a couple things he said that greatly relieved me. First, he argued for the idea that a broad based amnesty was necessary and logical. He said there'd be 'no double standard between American soldiers and Iraqis' but I think that's an accurate statement that is at the same time meaningless. Nasty war criminals and known terrorists won't get amnesty. Some insurgent fighters that fought and even killed Americans probably will. The exact details will depend on negotiation, but it looks like the admin will not black ball reasonable deals to appease the Senate.
Second, "al-Maliki, also said the United States and Iraq have set up a new commission to outline terms and conditions for the U.S. withdrawal of troops, bringing Iraq into the decision making process for the first time." I've long favored this sort of thing, about time it got implemented.
So, even if the reconciliation plan was watered down some, it looks like all the necessary ingredients are there. There's been some talk of Sunni nationalist insurgents considering it, but nothing solid yet. The recent news of massacres in Baghdad makes all to clear that if this doesn't pull through a high-intensity civil war is imminent. The amount of time we have to work out a deal probably depends on the degree to which we can bring security to the capital. Our current efforts are failing, but we might put more troops on the job.
If it becomes a high intensity civil war, it increasingly won't be clear if we have a dog in this fight. Possible options include phased withdrawal or focusing on the borders. The logic for focusing on the borders is to prevent a regional war, which is a distinct possibility. In any case, if there's a high intensity civil war, the U.S. will have failed its mission in Iraq. At that point the admin should either present and justify a new mission or get out.
Finally, I'll note that Khalilzad also commented that it was important to neither withdrawal too early nor too late. He put much more emphasis on early, but I'm not sure an administration official as yet acknowledge the risks of leaving late.
I still think Zarqawi's death was a positive moment. Without that, the reconciliation plan would have looked like a far weaker move. But the main fight is now sectarian and not counter-insurgent or counter-terrorism. Thus even getting the next S.O.B. in charge of Al Qaeda in Iraq doesn't preclude the need for a settlement.