WASHINGTON — A little-noticed visit by Ahmad Chalabi to Syria is igniting speculation that the former Iraqi exile leader is emerging as a key channel between Damascus and Washington.
After a weekend meeting with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, Mr. Chalabi announced that Syria and Iraq would formally open their respective embassies in Damascus and Baghdad on Monday. An American diplomat said yesterday that Mr. Chalabi also was gauging the interest of the Assad regime in a limited rapprochement with America.
Mr. Chalabi regularly consults with the American ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. On Saturday, Mr. Chalabi told reporters that Syria and Iraq were considering joint patrols along the porous border they share.
While Mr. Chalabi's opposition organization had offices in Damascus throughout the 1990s, he had not visited Syria since before the war. Mr. Chalabi's weekend visit is also notable because Syria has helped fund and supply the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. In some ways, it also reflects new political realities following the Iraq war, including a military and intelligence alliance between Syria and Iran, whose ruling mullahs often consult Mr. Chalabi on Iraq.
If Mr. Chalabi, who fell from power this spring with the ascendance of Prime Minister al-Maliki, plays a role in helping implement America's new strategy in Iraq, he may be aiding in the dissolution of the Shiite political coalition he helped form in 2004. The White House is pressing Mr. Maliki to cut out a key pillar of that Shiite bloc, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia has carried out killings of Sunni civilians. As early as May 2003, Mr. Chalabi advocated for coalition forces and the Iraqi government to reach out to the popular junior cleric.
The meeting in Damascus gives a glimpse of a new American-Iraq strategy that is likely to emerge in January after the White House announced that the original roll-out, scheduled for before Christmas, had been canceled.
Syria's ambassador to America, Imad Moustapha, yesterday said that a number of Democratic lawmakers as well as some Republicans had approached him to discuss the prospects for engagement. He also said his government would be willing to encourage Sunni Arabs in Iraq to work within the political process.
Engagement with Syria, a country American and Lebanese leaders have accused of authorizing assassinations of politicians and journalists in the last year, is also a key recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton commission. The State Department has even considered expanding a regional forum of Iraq's neighbors that deals largely with oil and the economy into a broader forum that could also deal with terrorism. Both Iran and Syria, according to the American military, are arming Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, though at this stage the insurgents are largely self-sufficient.
President Bush yesterday met with Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, for nearly half an hour as part of stream of Iraqi leaders whom he has consulted for his new war policy. "Our objective is to help the Iraqi government deal with the extremists and killers, and support the vast majority of Iraqis who are reasonable people who want peace," Mr. Bush said.
An administration official yesterday said the president has been insistent that no new strategy for Iraq would abandon the elected government in Iraq, despite that government's failure to stem anti-Sunni violence from some Shiite militias. "This war will be won if understand it in terms of the government against those reject it. It cannot be won if this is Sunnis against Shiites," this official said.
To that end, the State Department has already informed the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministry of a scenario whereby Mr. Maliki would stay in power, but Mr. Sadr would be marginalized.
Fox News last night reported that the president's new strategy would include calling up more troops to stabilize the country.