It is time to hold a peace conference on Iraq. Only a regional solution can end the continued fighting that threatens to spill over into neighbouring states.
The argument in the US over what to do in Iraq is stalemated in a debate over "staying the course" or establishing a deadline for the withdrawal of coalition forces. Both policies are more an expression of hope than a sober assessment of reality. "Staying the course" shows no signs of achieving America's goal of a free, democratic and peaceful Iraq soon - but neither is withdrawing according to an arbitrary deadline. Getting beyond this impasse requires a regional agreement on Iraq's security. Without one, Iraq is unlikely to be able to stand on its own to defend itself from internal turmoil and foreign meddling for years to come.
The insurgency that claims lives every day in Iraq threatens to explode into a sectarian civil war that could lead to the break-up of the country and the intervention of its neighbours in a "war of all against all". Or, Iraq could remain a single nation but one that limps along badly divided - a failed state that could serve as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against neighbouring countries. It is in the self-interest of every nation in the region to prevent either disastrous outcome.
The Iranians - despite the dispute over their nuclear efforts and their anti-American rhetoric - want to talk to Washington about stabilising the situation in Iraq. The Saudis are concerned that Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq could engulf their kingdom. The Turks and Iranians are against an independent Kurdistan breaking away from Iraq because that could lead to greater unrest and demand for independence among their own Kurdish populations. Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and others are worried about being targeted by terrorist attacks from jihadists in Iraq.
Yet many of Iraq's neighbours are contributing to the chaos in that country, because they oppose the US presence or feel obligated to support various Iraqi factions that share some political, ethnic or religious ties. In the end, the countries wind up working against what should be their common goals: stopping the fighting in Iraq, preserving Iraq as one nation and achieving an orderly withdrawal of coalition forces.
A high-level conference of all the interested nations in the region is therefore essential to get nations working together rather than continuing to slide towards confrontation. Holding such a conference would also give squabbling Iraqi politicians a strong incentive to agree on a national government so it could attend and have a say in Iraq's future.
The conference could be organised by the United Nations, the Arab League, or a government such as Egypt. But to succeed, it would require vigorous US support and diplomacy. Conference participants would need to seek agreement on respect and support for the territorial integrity of Iraq; an end to supplying arms or fighters to the insurgents and sectarian militias; and guarantees for minority rights in Iraq - including an Iraqi commitment to change its constitution to achieve these guarantees. They should work to agree on supporting an Iraqi government of national unity and a timetable, based on compliance with these commitments, for the withdrawal of coalition forces and, if necessary, replacement by UN or Arab League peacekeepers.
Agreement on these issues may have to be accompanied by security guarantees for such countries as Syria, as well as bilateral and multilateral assistance to Iraq. The package should be endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Achieving success in such a peace conference would not automatically end the insurgency and sectarian violence, but would be a big step in bringing both under control. It is likely that the participants in a conference would try to drag in other important but extraneous issues such as US sanctions on Iran, nuclear proliferation, or even Israel and the Palestinian territories. These must be resolutely avoided. In fact, many such issues could well become more tractable with a successful peace conference on Iraq.
Like neighbours who help put out a fire on their block for fear that the flames will spread to their own homes, Iraq's neighbours are beginning to see that they cannot leave it to America to deal with Iraq. A peace conference would give them a forum to work together for an end to the fighting that is tearing Iraq and the region apart.
The writer is director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corporation, a non-profit research organisation. He is a former US diplomat who worked on Middle East issues including the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on June 7, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.