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Iraq oozes bad news, but success is still possible

A child embraces her father near a building destroyed by two suicide car bombers in Baghdad on Nov. 18.
A child embraces her father near a building destroyed by two suicide car bombers in Baghdad on Nov. 18.
Hadi Mizban, Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A torrent of bad news — rising soldier death tolls, suicide bombers, torture allegations — is riling America right now with the hard realities of Iraq.

Yet, after nearly three years and more than 2,000 American lives, there also was some hope this week. At a meeting in Cairo, Iraqis outlined what may prove the best — if uncertain — prospect for success: cutting a deal with former adversaries in hopes the country does not descend into civil war.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, hinted at such a formula a few months ago when he told an American audience that bringing disaffected groups into the political process "is ultimately how this conflict is going to be resolved."

That would mean a new Iraq in which some lesser figures from Saddam Hussein's old Iraq play a role.

The emerging strategy — strongly pushed by the United States — may work. Sunni Arabs seem genuinely interested in voting in the Dec. 15 elections rather than boycotting the polls as they did in January. Sunni Arab leaders are encouraging a big turnout, often at great personal risk.

If more Sunnis see a future for their community in a democratic Iraq, the level of violence may recede. And, Iraqi army and police forces could assume enough responsibility by late next year so a substantial number of American and other international troops could go home.

But few strategies in Iraq have gone according to plan. There are many pitfalls along the way. And even if this one works, it could take years to stabilize a country awash in both bitter communal rivalries and deadly weapons.

It's not that the situation in Iraq has necessarily gotten worse — it may be just that America's understanding of Iraq has gotten better.

Tensions among Shiites, Sunni and Kurds — held mostly in check during Saddam's rule — are seemingly always on the boil these days. Politics is defined by loyalty to tribe, religion and ethnicity.

U.S. troops unleashed those passions when they invaded in 2003 and now find themselves caught in the middle.

Communal hatreds play out in guerrilla attacks and reprisal killings. As just one example: Iraq's security forces, especially the elite commandoes of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, have taken a greater role in ferreting out insurgents hiding among the Sunni Arab populations.

American commanders believe Iraqis are better than foreigners in identifying insurgents hidden among the population. But with security services heavy on Shiites and Kurds and insurgent ranks largely Sunni, the battle against insurgents has sharpened the cultural divide.

Since the Shiite-led government took power in April, hundreds of bodies have turned up in Baghdad and remote areas — hands bound and bullets in their head. The victims were both Sunnis and Shiites, slain in reprisal killings by extremists from both communities.

For months, Sunni Arabs have been accusing the Interior Ministry of wholesale arrests and abuse of Sunnis in an attempt to find a handful of rebels.

The discovery by U.S. troops this month of up to 173 detainees — malnourished and some showing signs of torture — hidden in an Interior Ministry building in central Baghdad gave credence to those charges.

U.S. officials took a strong stand after the torture allegation. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Casey met with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, and demanded a full investigation. The Iraqis agreed.

The sharp U.S. response, after months of Sunni allegations, was aimed at reassuring Sunnis and encouraging them to participate in politics.

To accomplish this, the Americans must drive a wedge between Iraqi insurgents from Saddam's party — who might accept a deal — and the foreign fighters and religious extremists of al-Qaida's Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But the risk of that strategy is alienating the majority Shiites — America's partners since the occupation started in 2003. Many Shiites, who suffered horrifically under the previous regime, oppose far-reaching steps to bring former Saddam allies back into the army and government.

The keys to success are the Dec. 15 election and a planned national reconciliation conference tentatively set for early next year in Iraq.

At the preparatory meeting in Cairo, Egypt, this week, Sunni Arabs insisted on recognizing the right of resistance to foreign occupation — language that could legitimize the insurgency.

The Sunnis also made clear they want the new government to insist on a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, which President Bush rejects.

The Sunnis ultimately accepted a watered-down version, which recognized that "resistance is a legitimate right for all people" but condemned terrorism and attacks against civilians.

The modified language drew a rebuke from U.S. authorities.

"Our view is that any attack on Iraqi forces or coalition forces, which are in Iraq under a U.N. mandate, is an unconscionable act to be universally and strongly condemned," a U.S. Embassy statement said Tuesday.

Even with the softened language, Shiite officials at the conference also were not pleased with the declaration, since insurgents have been targeting the Shiite-led government's security forces.

The Sunni proposals constitute the broad outlines of a formula:

Talk to certain factions of the insurgency more interested in power than jihad.

Come up with some sort of timetable that satisfies the Bush administration and gives hope that the U.S. presence here is limited.

But there is a long way to go.

Robert H. Reid, AP correspondent at large, has reported frequently from Iraq since 2003.