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At the brink of the abyss

09/02/2003

Today it may seem like just the latest in a series of terrorist atrocities perpetrated by America's shadowy, faceless enemies in Iraq. But in the months to come, the massacre at the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf also may loom in our minds as the beginning of the end.

Yesterday, the funeral of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim brought Iraqi Shi'ites out in force onto the streets of Baghdad, producing Iraq's largest mass political demonstration since the heady days after the fall of the city. American troops were kept off the streets to avoid clashes with the demonstrators. This was a sensible decision, but not one that can be sustained indefinitely, should demonstrations continue under whatever guise. There simply are not enough Iraqi policemen to keep order; indeed, even with the Americans and other Coalition forces on patrol, there aren't nearly enough men to go around. And the intimidating presence of Shi'ite marchers on the streets of the capital will not be conducive to order.

One of the few bright spots in post-Saddam Iraq, the absence of sustained, large-scale ethnic or sectarian conflict, is now imperiled. But the attacks on the Americans in the "Sunni Triangle" and their allies (Jordan, the UN) in Baghdad have now spread down to Shi'ite terrority in Najaf, taking on the feel of an attempt both to intimidate Shi'ites and to discredit the American agenda in Iraq. The Najaf bombing also brings to mind the anti-Shi'ite violence that was a staple of the ancien regime. It may even have been designed to sow intercommunal conflict and spur nostalgia for the former rulers. Such feelings would be especially strong among Sunni Arabs, for whom the perpetual restiveness of the Shi'ites became a major selling point for Ba'athist rule.

Particularly chilling were swiftly broadcasted remarks attributed to the long-time champion of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, one Saddam Hussein. While this statement has been interpreted widely as a denial of responsibility, it actually contains no claim to this effect, and conveys no sense of sympathy or outrage. Instead, its message seems to be, Shi'ites of Iraq, remember who is master:

Many of you might have heard the hissing of snakes, the servants of the infidel occupation invaders, who - after the killing of al-Hakim - rushed to accuse, without any evidence, those they called the supporters of Saddam Hussein of the incident. I would like to comment on this as follows:

Saddam Hussein is not the leader of the minority or a group, with whom he is affiliated or who are affiliated with him. He is the leader of all the great Iraqi people -- Arabs and Kurds; Shiites and Sunnis; Muslims and non-Muslims. Saddam Hussein does not attribute this saying to himself. This is what was decided by the great Iraqi people themselves in free, public elections. The people pledged allegiance to Saddam Hussein as the president of the republic and leader of the people.

Up to the present, balancing communal power blocs has been the basis of America's efforts to build an indigenous Iraqi government. So far, this has been a formula for paralysis. The Governing Council, unable to elect a single leader, instead chose a revolving group of nine, roughly matching the country's demographics: the two major rival Kurdish leaders, three Sunni Arabs, and four Arab Shi'ites. Previous balancing acts of this sort, in Cyprus, Lebanon, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, do not have a terrific track record. But now even this weak foundation may be imperiled.

Paralysis also prevails in Washington. Officials and commentators alike insist that we cannot allow ourselves to fail, without any searching consideration of the stakes or the costs. For most, this view is self-evident. Joe Klein, writing in Time Magazine, put it this way:

Last week the President restated the obvious: retreat is not an option. Iraq cannot be left an anarchic, terrorist state. Every major Democrat running for President, including Howard Dean, agrees - and most go further than Bush, asserting that more money and manpower are needed to secure the peace. But the President has stubbornly resisted sharing with the American people a detailed assessment of the situation in Iraq: the fact that we may still be there a decade from now at a cost of hundreds of billions.
This consensus - that "we cannot fail" lest Iraq degenerate into "an anarchic, terrorist state," or return to Ba'athism, or become a Shi'ite-dominated Islamic Republic, or some other nightmare scenario written in shorthand - shields the American political class from the real range of choices. Public support simply does not exist for the level of commitment that Bush's critics, both Democrats and Republicans, insist is necessary. In a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll of adult Americans, nearly half of respondents felt that the US should begin to withdraw either some or all of its forces from Iraq now.

The Administration, at least, appears to recognize this harsh fact of political life. Yet White House decisionmakers do not seem equally able to reconcile themselves to any moderation of their goals or rhetoric. The unfortunate collapse of the primary rationale for the war - the idea of a WMD threat - has placed an even heavier burden on the secondary rationale, promoting democracy. The President accordingly cannot, or will not, permit himself to discard it. But with hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites marching in the streets of Baghdad, the prospects for democracy seem more remote than ever.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000070.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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