A League of Their Own

By Milton Viorst, the author of “Storm from the East: The Conflict Between the Arab World and the Christian West.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30/01/07):

PRESIDENT BUSH seems not to have noticed, but what stands between hostile sectarian forces and the resumption of all-out civil war in Lebanon is the Arab League, whose diplomacy 17 years ago put an end to a conflict in which tens of thousands of Lebanese died. Is there not a lesson here, for the president and the Democratic Congress, that is applicable to Iraq?

The Beirut face-off is the follow-up to last summer’s war, in which Hezbollah, the Shiite party supported by Syria and Iran, held off the more powerful Israelis long enough to achieve a United Nations cease-fire on favorable terms. Now Hezbollah challenges the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which is supported by the bulk of Lebanon’s Sunni, Christian and Druse population, as well as the United States.

Hezbollah seeks to upset the fragile balance to which Lebanon’s sectarian forces agreed in 1989 under Arab League mediation. At that time, the Arab League’s goal was to prevent the chaos in Lebanon from spreading to the wider Arab world. That remains the league’s goal today, both in Lebanon and in Iraq. But it also has another concern: with Tehran’s regional power rising, the Arab League has a deep interest in keeping both countries in the Arab sphere, free of Iranian domination.

The United States finds itself increasingly unable to stem the violence in Iraq, and it seems unlikely that a surge of troops will strengthen American influence. American negotiators have not won the confidence of Sunnis or Shiites, the principal combatants, nor even of Kurds, the uneasy bystanders. Mr. Bush may still consider himself a liberator, but among Iraqis there is a widespread feeling that his invasion was just the latest crime of Western imperialism.

Curiously, the Iraq Study Group, in acknowledging Iraqi distrust of the United States, suggested a greater diplomatic role for Syria and Iran, the very countries that have an interest in Iraq’s instability. Though better relations with these two countries might be in Washington’s long-term interest, they are surely not going to help matters in Iraq.

That’s where the Arab League comes in. Because it is Arab, it can count on a level of trust, even among suspicious Iraqis, not available to the United States or its Western allies.

Critics argue that the Arab League, being heavily Sunni, can have no influence on Iraq’s Shiites. They forget that the bulk of the Iraqi Army that defeated Iran in the 1980-88 war was Shiite. This fact alone tells us that Iraqi Shiites, much as they want to be rid of the American occupation, are not ready to become Iranian. The Arab League can work from this premise to restore Iraq’s stability. The United States cannot.

The Arab League’s Baghdad offices are recognized by the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has strongly supported Iraq’s involvement with the Arab League. Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary general, has had an open door not just to Iraqi officials but also to Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader, and to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most powerful cleric, who has never received an American official. The Iraqi foreign minister, a Kurd, has participated regularly in Arab League meetings.

To be sure, the Arab League cannot offer miracles. The situation in Iraq has deteriorated much too far for that. But with an invitation from the American president, it could immediately get to work at mediating the conflict.

If the objective is political stability and national reconciliation in Iraq, neither President Bush nor the Democratic Congress has a more promising option.