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The Iraqi Hydra Grows New Heads Every Day

With the removal of the Baathist regime, a whole host of would-be leaders has bubbled to the surface in Iraq, representing a mix of conflicting allegiances and ideologies.
 
 
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Iraq is like the legendary Hydra, the many-headed monster that grew two new heads every time one was cut off. Having decapitated the Iraqi state, the Bush administration is now watching as the new heads, in the form of carpetbagging pretenders to office, spring up daily.

The chief carpetbagger is Ahmad Chalabi, self-appointed head of the Iraqi National Council, an overseas Iraqi resistance movement that emerged in the early 1990s. Chalabi, an American-trained mathematician, has been a darling of the American right since the first Gulf War.

Arab leaders in the region as well as the CIA have continually warned the White House that he is a thief, a charlatan, an incompetent and a poser. He first appeared as an opposition leader following his embezzlement trial in absentia in Jordan in 1989. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison for stealing $250 million from a series of businesses he controlled for the Petra Bank, Jordan's third largest bank. Despite this criminal background, he is the poster child for the Bush theory of Iraqi reconstruction.

Following a meeting with State Department officials in April 1993, Chalabi spoke at the right-wing neocon bastion American Enterprise Institute. Chalabi, a Shi'ite, said just what the then-nascent neocons, who would later populate the George W. Bush White House, wanted to hear. He voiced opposition to Saddam, saying he could be easily defeated, expressed opposition to Iran and said that Iraq could easily develop democratic institutions. Asserting that Iraq's middle class could be the "democratic core" of a new government, Chalabi said, "There is nothing in Islam that contradicts democracy."

After arriving in Baghdad on April 21, he further endeared himself to Washington by denouncing the United Nations' potential role in rebuilding Iraq. In doing so he repeated a cheap anecdote that surely came from Karl Rove's office, about Kofi Annan smoking a cigar with Saddam Hussein.

Chalabi is obviously a "good Muslim" in the White House view, as opposed to the Shi'ite sheikhs now fomenting demonstrations throughout the country, calling for America to go home. Although the Shi'ites are the majority in Iraq, and would lead the nation were a truly democratic election held today, such a scenario is clearly in opposition to American long-term wishes.

However, there is factional fighting among the Shi'ites as well.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, arguably Iraq's most revered Shi'ite spiritual leader, gave an interview to the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat on April 18, through his son. Sistani's son spoke of "serious dangers that are directed at the religious figures," including al-Sistani himself. Georgetown University Middle East scholar Daniel Blumberg, who translated the interview, interprets these dangers as opposition from other Shi'ites.

One of those Shi'ite rivals is Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the few surviving descendants of Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr al-Sadr, who was executed on Saddam Hussein's orders in 1980.
Muqtada al-Sadr is only 22, but a firebrand. Reporter Lara Marlowe of The Ireland Times quotes one Shi'ite in Baghdad: "The young people in Najaf follow Muqtada, but the older ayatollahs say he doesn't have enough knowledge."

U.S. troops arrested one of al-Sadr's lieutenants, Shaikh Muhammad al-Fartusi, and two other clerics at a Baghdad checkpoint when they gathered a huge crowd of Shi'ites in Baghdad to denounce the United States at Friday prayers. Al-Fartusi said in his sermon that the United States could not impose a formal "democracy" on Iraq that allowed freedom of individual speech but denied Iraqis the ability to shape their own government.

Al-Fartusi's arrest provoked a big demonstration of 5,000 Shiites in front of the Palestine Hotel.

Other pretenders to leadership seem doubtful, but just may insinuate themselves into a permanent job. Muhammad Mohsen al-Zubaidi, an Iraqi dissident who used to live in Iran, announced recently in a press conference in a Baghdad hotel that he had been declared interim mayor of Baghdad.

Al-Zubaidi's new office was announced through IRNA, the Iranian National News Agency. Al-Zubaidi's Iranian residence raises suspicions that he may be a stalking horse for Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, who founded of the Council of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI) in 1982. Al-Hakim comes from a respected Shi'ite clerical lineage. He lives in Iran, has many followers in both Iran and Iraq, and is worrisome to the Bush administration.

Finally, there is the American retired general Jay Garner, America's chosen "viceroy" in Iraq, who expressly rejected al-Zubaidi as interim leader of the Baghdad government upon his arrival. Garner prefers to be called "coordinator of civilian administration." A conservative and an outspoken supporter of right-wing Israeli political positions, he is even less likely than any of the above candidates to garner support from Iraqis, except for one fact -- he has all the money, and all the guns.

William Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran," and two forthcoming books: "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."