The Bush administration has bowed to reason and common sense in agreeing to join Iran and Syria at a regional conference aimed at stabilising Iraq. The conference, the first of its kind to be held inside or outside Iraq since the United States's disastrous 2003 invasion, will take place in Baghdad. It is the Noor al-Maliki government that will do the inviting. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that the Iraqi government could have planned such an event, let alone drawn up such an imaginative guest list, without Washington's express instructions. The conference, scheduled for later this month, will be attended primarily by foreign office bureaucrats but the conferees will also meet again outside the region in April at the Ministerial level. At that point, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will find herself seated around the same table as her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, essentially asking him to come to the rescue of America. Whatever the spin or disclaimers put out, that would be an event of considerable political significance, not just because of what it might mean for Iraq but for the last chance it provides the U.S. to get off the escalator of confrontation it has recklessly clambered on to. Whether Ms. Rice will seize that opportunity remains to be seen.

As far as the future of Iraq itself is concerned, the diplomatic engagement of Iran and Syria is an idea that has broad bipartisan support within Washington. The Baker-Hamilton report advocated it, although the recent escalation of anti-Iranian rhetoric led the world to believe that the report's realistic prescriptions had been cast aside. No doubt it is the depth of the military crisis the U.S. occupation force in Iraq faces that has forced the Bush administration to reach out to Tehran. Western military and strategic affairs experts are now speaking of the `Iraq quagmire' in a way that brings to mind the American military and political debacle in Vietnam in another era. In the absence of a clear and unambiguous commitment by Washington that it is prepared to leave the country it illegally invaded and occupied, it is difficult to see what Iran or any other regional player can do. The sectarian conflict, which is Iraq's single biggest challenge now, is a product of the American occupation. It is naïve to believe that conflict will end before the occupation does. Iran and, to an extent, Syria have constructive roles to play in helping Iraq minimise sectarian strife, rebuild the shattered lives of its people, and regain its spirit. On the other hand, the best way for the U.S. to help in the normalisation of Iraq, and also help itself, is to cut its losses and end its occupation.