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Milton Viorst op-ed in NYTimes 1/30/07

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* * *
 *A League of Their Own *

By MILTON VIORST

Washington

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.

//Milton Viorst is the author of “Storm from the East: The Conflict
Between the Arab World and the Christian West.”//