What Lurks in the Ruins?

The war against Iraq is on the road to failure in its most important, durable objective: to transform this construct of British imperialism, Baathist oppression, and American fantasies into a willing replica of Western democracy.

The results of the war cannot be measured by the U.S. military capacity to control Baghdad, occupy the entire country, and eradicate the odious Saddam Hussein regime. Discovering chemical and biological weapons may also be a trophy of the war. But the key goal -- articulated time and again by the Bush administration, supportive Democrats, and even some hawkish progressives -- has been to liberalize Iraq, thereby setting an example for nearby Muslim countries and altering the Middle East forever. But because of the way both the war is being conducted and the plans for postwar Iraq are designed, this vision of a democratic oasis in the desert of Muslim despotism is appearing more and more a mirage.

The fantasy of the good hegemon bringing liberation to the Iraqi people is being shattered first by events on the ground. The resistence in the south, the delay of the relief effort, the uncertain reception granted to the liberators, and the deep supply of contenders for the hearts and minds (and souls) of Iraq's majority Shi'ite population make for a very dispiriting specter for American warriors. Reports of the casualties from Baghdad and Basra are especially troubling.

The deprivations of war, the civilian deaths, the ruined lives, the smoldering cityscapes will not soon be forgotten, and, for the locals, who fired the weapons is practically irrelevant. The war planners did not count on this, we are now often told, and the struggle through the news media to assign blame to Saddam loyalists for war crimes and dirty tactics scarcely matters outside the precincts of Fox News and CNN. The fact that the United States started the war that is visiting havoc on the people of Iraq is the central fact shaping the social narrative that will guide politics in the south for the foreseeable future. The longer the fighting and deprivation last, of course, the sturdier and darker that narrative becomes.

This disquiet in the Iraqi Shi'ite population is not inert. Among those oppressed by the Baghdad regime are the Muslim clerics who finally see their main chance to liberate their people on their own terms. They look very similar to the fearsome ayatollahs of Iran that drove Presidents Reagan and Bush the Elder to embrace and support Saddam in the 1980s. Today, twenty years after supplying money, intelligence, military equipment, and political blessings to Saddam -- saving his regime in the brutal eight-year war with Iran -- many of the same decision-makers in Washington are opening the door to Shiite militancy. The Ayatollah al-Hakim, with his 15,000-strong Badr Brigade of well-trained Iraqis at the ready, waits across the river to re-enter history in his sacred homeland. He may do so brashly, inviting an American military reprisal, or he may wait until the occupiers have gone home and then move easily into the scarred terrain of his youth. Then we will see the hero's welcome "our boys" so unfairly were denied.

Nor is al-Hakim the only contender for Iraqi loyalties. There will be others -- clan leaders, for example, or rivals among religious outliers and former military men. Reports of an active presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sunni, also present a sobering notion for those who will govern Baghdad.

This scenario is all the more disconcerting if seen alongside the Pentagon's postwar planning. While close-lipped and probably scrambling to adjust to the less-than-celebratory climate in Iraq, the planners by the Potomac have designed governance to ensure that security and civil order are the premium objectives of the first months and years. Shadow ministers from Rumsfeld's stable will govern behind Iraqi puppets. Even the State Department's suggestions for these consuls -- former ambassadors who know a little about the Arab world -- were rejected by the Secretary of War.

The Iraqi exile groups that the U.S. government carefully nurtured for a decade, notably the rapacious businessman Ahmed Challabi (whose habits of embezzlement are a recurring joke among Iraqi ex-pats), may be credible interlocutors for the transition, but this, too, smacks of imperialism: The British installed a king in the 1920s and did not even bother to find an Iraqi candidate. The record of returning exiles under the aegis of a foreign power is not encouraging.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is unlikely to have a role except, as always, to clean up behind the elephants' stampede; Tony Blair can explain that to the Labour conference this summer as he fights for his job.

The chief of civil administration is not to be an appointment of Kofi Annan but of Richard Perle: Michael Mobbs, a K Street law partner of Doug Feith, the undersecretary of defense, Perle crony, and member of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Cheney warrior caste. Mobbs has no qualifications for this exalted position apart from his political loyalty. His boss is Jay Garner, a retired army general working for a defense contractor, who now oversees the Pentagon office that includes humanitarian relief and reconstruction in addition to civil administration.

The military itself has expressed a strong preference not to have to police Iraq after the war, specifically hoping to avoid getting in the middle of what they call "green-on-green" violence. This is understandable, but the alternatives are not readily apparent, unless they can cajole the U.N. to send in some poor Salvadoran and Cambodian vets to put themselves in harm's way. Estimates of the needed force range from 50,000 to 200,000, a very large contingent. That after a few weeks or months they would be seen by Iraqis as occupiers is almost a certainty. But the United States, which has all but abandoned Afghanistan, cannot so easily cut loose from Iraq: The diplomatic, economic, and political stakes are too high.

So it is likely that U.S. administrators and soldiers will soon come into conflict with the Shiites who comprise 60 percent of Iraq. Whether this is peaceful political competition or something nastier is difficult to say. But sooner or later, the Shi'ite clergy will vie for power, not just in the south, but for the entire country. Only a strategy of divide and conquer will keep an Iran-friendly regime out of Baghdad. And that is precisely what the United States is doing.

Early reports of relief efforts indicate that the U.S. military is favoring certain Shi'ite clerics over others to distribute food and supplies and in essence to assume temporary posts as local administrators. Politicizing aid is a no-no in humanitarian circles, and the relief NGOs are squawking. But this is where the high-stakes game really begins, and the Bush administration is playing it hard, if fitfully.

Public disagreements between State and Defense about postwar Iraq signal very serious disputes in Washington, and, remarkably, demonstrate astonishing incompetence in planning. But in such a catfight the Pentagon has the sharpest claws. Hence, Challabi's presence in Nassariyeh in early April, well before other Shiite or Sunni exiles. Hence, the favoritism among Shi'ite clergy (Rumsfeld sternly warned that al-Hakim was being told to stay in Iran).

Creating many poles of Shiite influence in Iraq may be the best way to keep them out of power, but it's a big gamble. The fracas about who among Americans would be the shadow ministers is what's getting the attention of the news media, which always gravitates to the political squabble in the imperial city. What is far more important in the long run is how the Shi'ites are fragmented, what social and political forces might bring them together, how they interpret the war, their relations with Iran, and their view of Iraq as the political unit cobbled together by the British Foreign Office in the 1920s. The latter is pregnant with meaning for the Kurds in the north, who could again feel excluded from Iraqi governance and attempt to split away and give birth to their long-denied sovereign state, a move that would be aborted forcibly (and preemptively) by Turkey.

It is quite difficult to see how the Bush administration can prevent any or all of these effects of the war. Maintaining a pro-American regime -- and pro-Israeli, too, a goal articulated by U.S. officials with cheeky candor -- would seem to require a very long occupation while muscling into Iraqi politics to prevent anti-American clerics from coming to power. This is particularly necessary if, as expected, the United States begins to militate against Iran.

That is not the vision of Iraqi liberation we were offered, nor would it sit well with an increasingly insolent Arab world. It would strengthen the hand of the mullahs in Iran, where liberal reform is rickety, and it would unsettle others in the region in unpredictable ways. But Bush, who certainly resembles his idol Ronald Reagan in his string of good luck, might yet enforce the strategy of conquer-and-divide, and avoid the catastrophe that lurks in the ruins of war.

John Tirman, program director at the Social Science Research Council, is author of "Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade."


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