Control of Iraq has slipped from US hands. Here, a rifle carried by a supporter of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr at the Najaf cemetary during a Sunday rally.
Yasar Qatarneh: Some have suggested that this meeting is taking place now because Bush was already on this side of the Atlantic for the NATO summit in Riga. Others have said that it is merely part of the administration's review of its Iraq policy and will give Bush a chance to get the Iraqi government's views. I don't think either of these are the real reason. The meeting has been prompted by Iran's invitation to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Syrian Presidents Bashar Assad to visit Tehran for talks on Iraq.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean it's merely a pro forma visit to show the world that the US is still the region's primary actor.
Qatarneh: Of course Bush is seriously concerned about the growing sectarian conflict in Iraq -- and the effect it is having on American public opinion. It is also true that the administration is unhappy with the Iraqi government and is beginning to see Maliki's government as incompetent and inept. But the Iranian initiative upstaged Bush. Washington has no direct contacts with Iran, meaning the meeting on Monday between Talabani and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the impression that the US was being sidelined even by its allies in Baghdad.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the meeting part of a US shift in strategy in the region?
Qatarneh: Nothing significant will come as a result. I don't expect the administration will announce any changes in strategy until it sees the results of the Pentagon's review of US options in Iraq as well as those of the Iraq Study Group.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would the region be better off were the US to completely withdraw, or does the Middle East need a strong American presence?
Qatarneh: Beyond the question of larger US presence versus withdrawal, a new atmosphere for change is developing in Washington after the recent Congressional election. After taking over both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Democrats have publicly discussed reinstituting an oversight committee and starting investigations into defense spending. They have also hinted at investigations into the Bush Administration's conduct of the war. All of this will make it hard to sustain a "stay the course" policy in Iraq. Against this background, I believe that Iraq is a case for the United Nations, with full and unrestricted backing from the European Union. The UN has to take over the country. Such a huge undertaking would involve giving Iraq a similar status to Kosovo. Iraq's sovereignty would have to be put temporarily into the hands of the international community.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many seem content to lay 100 percent of the blame for Iraq's ongoing meltdown on the shoulders of the US. But the Sunnis and Shiites in the country certainly haven't made things easier. Don't they deserve a share of the blame?
Qatarneh: The real reason for the violence is that the Bush Administration never defined a realistic and achievable set of military goals in the Middle East in general or in Iraq in particular. Its original political goal -- that of establishing a unified, pro-American Iraq that would sign favorable oil contracts with the US, would ally with Israel, and would form a springboard for further US pressure on Iran and Syria -- proved to be completely unrealistic. The inability of the neoconservatives in Washington to let go of those objectives is the biggest problem we have in Iraq and the Middle East. That's where the violence comes from. The imperial ambitions of the current administration have to come to an end.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What, then, is the way forward?
Qatarneh: A new peace process overseen by neutral international arbitrators and guaranteed by the UN. The present governing Iraqi elite would have a place at the table but could not be in government for the duration of the negotiations. Their place at the head of failing or semi-functioning ministries would temporarily be taken by international civil-servants.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The main concern of the Iraqis at the moment, though, is security. Car bombs and gangland-style executions have become daily occurrences. Can that be solved by the international community?
Qatarneh: A multilateral force of peacekeepers not associated with the US invasion and its bloody aftermath would have to take the place of American forces. Meanwhile, in return for a place at the table the insurgents would have to agree to reject al-Qaida forces in the country. Once a UN-sponsored peace and reconciliation process is in place, the Iraqi insurgents' goals, focused as they are on control of the Iraqi State, would be easily distinguishable from those of al-Qaida, which is waging a permanent war against the West, with Iraq as a sideshow. Once both the international community and America have got past the deep divisions caused by the invasion, the way is open for far more aid and expertise to pour into the country.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What role does Iran have in all this? Is Tehran a force for stabilization or destabilization in the Middle East?
Qatarneh: Iran lies at the heart of the arc of crisis in the Middle East. It has intricate political, cultural and economic ties to Iraq. It also has long-standing involvement with opposition movements that have worked with Washington. One also can't forget its economic importance, sitting as it is on some 11 percent of the world's oil reserves. Plus, as a religious state and the largest Shiite country, it heavily influences wider doctrinal debates in Islam. All that makes it a critical actor in the region's stability.
Interview conducted by Mohammad Ghazal