With a mid-September deadline looming for the Bush administration to deliver its Iraq progress report to Congress, American diplomats in Baghdad are working in overdrive to prevent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government from total collapse – something that could shatter all efforts to forge a long-elusive national reconciliation.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been in close contact with Iraqi officials in the runup to a crisis summit of leaders, scheduled for this week. He has also met with top Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite leaders individually.
On Monday, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi met with Mr. Crocker and White House special envoy to Iraq, Meghan O'Sullivan, "to discuss preparations for the upcoming leaders' summit," according to Mr. Hashemi's office.
The US Embassy is offering advice, ideas, and encouragement to make sure that agreements reached by the leaders are specific and meaningful, says an embassy official knowledgeable about the talks.
"Behind the scenes, there is a lot of cajoling and warning. The Americans are very much involved to make sure the Maliki government does not fall," says Rime Allaf of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, who spoke by telephone from Damascus, Syria.
The current government crisis in Iraq, which is the worst since Iraqis gained sovereignty from the US-led occupation in June 2004, was precipitated three weeks ago by the decision of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab bloc to which Vice President Hashemi belongs, to withdraw its six ministers from Mr. Maliki's government.
When asked about the level of American involvement to help keep the government intact, W. Johann Schmonsees, spokesman for the US Embassy in Baghdad, wrote in an e-mail, "The United States strongly supports efforts of the prime minister and other Iraqi leaders to advance national reconciliation as a vital element in ending violence, stabilizing the country, and building democratic institutions."
One much talked about compromise to ease the current political impasse is to create a new council comprised of Iraq's president, his two deputies, and the prime minister that would make decisions aimed at spurring the political process.
If the summit does take place this week (it was previously planned and then canceled, and the government is currently on a month-long break), it will come in the shadow of the worst coordinated suicide attack since November 2006. On Tuesday night, as many as five truck bombs struck densely populated parts of two villages in northwest Iraq, near the Syrian border. The blasts killed more than 250 people in areas of ethnic Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking sect. The US military said it suspects Al Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for the attack.
Maliki is scheduled to visit Syria this coming Monday. Iraq's neighbor is indeed home to many insurgency leaders and backers.
Harith al-Dhari, who lives in Syria and heads the pro-insurgency Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, told Al Jazeera television Wednesday that Washington was making a mistake by backing Maliki. He said it was time to correct that and reform the whole process.
"If the Americans continue to depend on the political process [that] they devised and they continue to use the same politicians that have proven their failure, then they will fail," he said. "But if they start thinking of an alternative that relies on wisdom and force to correct the situation, then they can leave Iraq in peace and in a face-saving way."
Baghdad-based political scientist Wamidh Nadhmi is not optimistic that the crisis meeting will have any meaningful result. The problem, he says, is that the current leaders, on whom the Americans are pinning their hopes, came to power based on a sectarian blueprint devised by Washington.
"America is asking them now to abandon their sectarianism, but they came to power depending on sectarian lists," says Mr. Nadhmi.
In a sign of growing US frustration and impatience over the government standstill, US officials here recently asked former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, to join a new coalition that would bolster Maliki's government. Mr. Allawi said he refused the offer in a television interview last week with Asharqiya. The US embassy declined comment on this.
Allawi, who has ambitions to return to government, has ordered ministers from his Iraqiya bloc to boycott cabinet meetings. Not all have complied. He said his party presented Maliki with suggestions five months ago that would "reform the political process" but that he never responded.
In an interview with Jordan's Al-Ghad newspaper, Allawi said there was no point in talking to Maliki anymore. "What kind of dialogue can take place between a sectarian government and the Iraqiya list, which works according to a national project away from sectarian considerations."
Ms. Allaf, the London analyst, says the fate of the political process in Iraq depends now on how its neighbors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey – react, given their ties to all the players. And, she says, the US needs to realize the importance of the regional influence and to apply pressure on those camps both directly and indirectly.
Talk of a leaders' summit followed the Iraqi Accordance Front pullout. It was originally to be held in the Kurdish north at the end of July, then was to take place this week after Maliki's announcement of the summit Sunday and the arrival of the Kurdish region's president, Massoud Barzani, in Baghdad.
On Tuesday, Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, hosted a lunch at his residence that was attended by everyone but Hashemi. "Iraq is united and this is not an exaggeration," Iraq's other vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, told reporters during the banquet.
Later Tuesday, Hashemi met with Mr. Barzani and he was supposed to meet him again Wednesday night in the presence of Mr. Talabani in an attempt to salvage the summit. "We are prepared to attend this summit as long as there is an agenda," Iyad al-Samarraie, a senior member of Hashemi's bloc, told the Monitor.
Getting Iraq's feuding leaders to agree on the timing and format of the summit appears to be as much of a challenge as the actual talks. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd and Talabani partisan, has been leading preparatory meetings with the political factions to come up with an agenda that would tackle reconciliation, power sharing, and legislation included in the 18 benchmarks devised by the White House to measure the Iraqi government's progress, according to the London-based Asharq al-Awsat daily.