Last week, a fierce critic of the Bush Administration's war in Iraq went, perhaps, a bridge too far. Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, flatly predicted that there is no hope for Iraq, other than its collapse and fragmentation. Upon issuing a report  that described Iraq as the second most unstable "failed state" after Sudan, Baker told the Washington Post, "We have recommended...that the administration face up to the reality that the only choices for Iraq are how and how violently it will break up."
And she's not the only one. Many opponents of Bush's adventure in Iraq, from left to center-right, have thrown up their hands. Most notorious, Senator Joe Biden, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Ambassador Peter Galbraith have written off Iraq, either predicting or encouraging its breakup into mini-states. Countless others have concluded that ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq have hardened into permanent hatreds. And there are those who--sadly or gleefully, depending on their point of view--declare definitively that Iraq was never really a nation. Instead, they say, it is an artificial creation that never existed except in the minds of British imperialists like Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell .
Such sentiments are being challenged by a nascent bloc of Iraqi nationalists who, against all odds, are working to put together a pan-Iraqi coalition that would topple the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki's ruling alliance includes separatist Kurdish warlords and Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists, both of whom want to carve out semi or wholly independent statelets. Although it has not yet jelled, Maliki's opposition--which includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as well as Christians, Turkmen and others--is within striking distance of creating a functioning parliamentary majority.
More important, outside Parliament the nationalists represent an overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Iraqis. Among the Sunnis, who have fifty-five seats in the 275-member Parliament, there is broad support for maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity not only among its deputies but throughout the armed Iraqi resistance, a diverse group that includes Baathists, Sunni tribal leaders, former military officers and the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious organization that claims to be the political arm of the resistance.
Among the Shiites, most Iraqi observers believe that if new elections were held, the big winners would be Muqtada al-Sadr 's party, which controls much of eastern Baghdad and wields great power in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and the Fadhila party, a quasi-Sadrist party with great strength in Iraq's south, particularly Basra. The big losers would be the ruling Dawa party, which has little or no remaining support, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed paramilitary party that now calls itself the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI).
Add to those forces the dwindling but still significant influence of secular nonsectarian Iraqis, whose titular leader is Iyad Allawi . Allawi's party, which has friends in the Arab Gulf and good connections to the CIA and MI-6, controls twenty-five deputies in Parliament. Its strength is ebbing as Iraq's middle class flees the civil war at an accelerating rate. But Allawi, who also has strong ties to Iraq's military officer class, could be a power broker in the emerging nationalist coalition.
Almost unnoticed in the American media, these nationalist forces have been groping toward an accommodation that could oust Maliki. In fits and starts, and under the worst possible conditions--literally under fire--they are looking for a way out of the ethnic and sectarian crisis. It is an effort that has been under way for nearly a year. But they are doing so not only without American support but with determined opposition from the Bush Administration.
Even though the nationalists represent what is probably Iraq's last chance to avoid civil war, collapse and fragmentation, the Bush Administration continues to support the Maliki government, the Kurdish warlords--America's closest allies in Iraq--and, most inexplicably, the Shiite fundamentalists in SICI. According to recent reports, Washington may be toying with the idea of replacing Maliki with Adel Abdul Mahdi, currently the Iraqi vice president and a leader of SICI. Last week Abdul Mahdi threatened to resign his post, and he appears to be angling for Maliki's job. (In 2006, during the prolonged negotiations following the December 2005 elections, the US Embassy quietly backed Mahdi over Maliki, but Maliki triumphed--by one vote--with the support of Muqtada al-Sadr.)
Why isn't Washington backing the nationalists, despite its growing frustration with Maliki's inability to meet the so-called "benchmarks" of political reconciliation that the United States wants? Because what holds together the emerging nationalist coalition, more than anything else, is militant opposition to the US occupation of Iraq.
Over the past two months, the nationalists in Parliament have won two landmark votes: the first in support of a bill calling for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal and the second in a vote demanding that the Iraqi government submit any plan to extend the US occupation past 2007 to Parliament. Most (but not all) of the support for those votes came from deputies associated with the Sunnis (fifty-five seats), Sadr (thirty seats), Fadhila (thirty seats) and Allawi (twenty-five seats). Theoretically, those four parties control 140 seats in Parliament, a bare majority--and one that could be bolstered by independent Shiite and even some dissident Dawa party members, according to Iraqi sources.
For Americans concerned about what Iraq might look like after a US withdrawal, it's important to note that the nationalist bloc is united by more than its opposition to the US occupation. They are also strongly opposed both to the terrorist forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and to the growing influence of Iran in Iraq. Lately, Sunni Iraqis, including tribal militias and several armed insurgent groups--such as the Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades--have been battling AQI throughout Anbar and other provinces, notably Diyala and Salahuddin to the north and east of Baghdad, as well as in some Baghdad neighborhoods. The Sunnis, who are also bitterly opposed to Iran's influence in Iraq, have gotten support from Sadr and Fadhila in trying to limit Iranian meddling. (Iran operates in Iraq primarily through SICI, whose Badr Brigade militia was created in Tehran in 1982 and has been armed, trained and advised by Iranian intelligence ever since.) In Basra, Nasiriyah and other Iraqi cities, both Sadr's and Fadhila's forces have been waging pitched battles against the militia and death squads of SICI.
Although Iran is reported to have influence or control over some of Sadr's Mahdi Army commanders, in recent weeks Sadr has been reasserting control of the Mahdi Army, purging extremists and reaching out to Sunni resistance leaders and clerics. And when US Ambassador Ryan Crocker met with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad on May 28--a meeting widely reviled by Iraqi nationalists, who saw it as the start of a US-Iranian plot to carve up Iraq--Sadr issued a striking denunciation of Iran. "It is most regrettable that they [the Iranians] are inadvertently or deliberately forgetting, in such negotiations, to demand that the occupier depart," said Sadr.
The most active Iraqi politician working to assemble the nationalist bloc in Iraq is Saleh Mutlaq, the former Baathist and leader of the National Dialogue Front. "We have been engaged in constructive talks to create this powerful bloc to save Iraq," he said  earlier this month. "Maliki's government should go because it has brought untold suffering to the Iraqi people." Mutlaq and others, including Allawi, have spoken about a "National Salvation Government" that could replace Maliki.
Of course, achieving that is a tall order. There is enormous suspicion among many of the potential players in the opposition. And with each passing day, as more Iraqis are killed, as sectarian atrocities pile up and as attitudes harden and fears grow, it becomes more difficult to bridge those divides. On top of all that, opposition leaders have to deal with the heavy-handed influence of the United States in all aspects of Iraqi civil affairs. According to US sources, Washington is using its vast influence in Iraq to prevent the emergence of a nationalist opposition and to preserve Maliki's regime.
Last month, when I asked David Satterfield, the State Department's chief Iraq person, if the United States could see itself supporting an alternative to Maliki, he shot down the suggestion in the strongest terms. "We strongly, explicitly support the government of Prime Minister Maliki," he said, through a clenched jaw, and looking me in the eye. "It is not helpful to talk about alternatives."
Similarly, two weeks ago, at a conference in New York, I asked Amar Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, son of SICI leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, about the National Salvation Government idea. "It represents a kind of conspiracy against the political process that is taking place right now," he said. Hakim is widely expected to become the leader of SICI if his father, who has lung cancer, dies or is incapacitated. Maliki, too, has begun warning darkly of conspiracies and military coups d'etat, even though his political opponents are operating openly and according to parliamentary rules.
What's important about all this is that perhaps the best chance to end the war in Iraq will come not from the US Congress, hamstrung by presidential veto and limited by the more timid instincts of its most conservative members, and not from the White House, which seems committed to preserving current US policy in Iraq into 2009, but from the Iraqis themselves. With or without Maliki, Iraqi opposition to the US occupation could force a timetable for withdrawal even before the end of 2007.
The United States, meanwhile, is flailing. The "surge" isn't working. The new US policy of arming Sunni tribes and even some resistance groups against Al Qaeda in Iraq is not a strategy; instead, having spent billions of dollars to arm and train the Shiite-led government's army and police, the United States is now arming the other side in Iraq's civil war, as well. Perhaps it makes too much sense for the delusional Bush Administration, but rather than arm both sides in the civil war it ought to arm neither and begin its withdrawal. Long before that realization dawns on US policy-makers, perhaps the Iraqis themselves with force the issue.