Wanted: Iraqis to Run Iraq

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U.S. Major General David Kratzer accompanies Zalmay Khalilzad

The U.S. is in a hurry to hand control of Iraq back to Iraqis. And with good reason: As deeply, often violently, divided as Iraq's various political and ethnic factions may be, one thing they all insist on is that they want to govern themselves. But as Tuesday's meeting near Nasiriyah between U.S. officials and a group of Iraqis selected by them showed, the process of creating even an interim Iraqi authority will be slow and contentious, and may spur opposition among many Iraqis to the presence of the U.S. and its alllies.

Hoping to allay fears that Washington is rushing to install its favorite Iraqi exiles — most notable among them controversial Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi — U.S. officials stressed that Tuesday's discussion was simply intended as a meet-and-greet, designed to open a discussion. Chalabi, in fact, didn't even attend; he simply sent a representative. More ominous absences, though, were the two militant groups most influential among Iraq's Shiite majority, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party. Thousands of their supporters turned out in the streets on nearby Nasiriyah to protest against the dominant role being played by the U.S. in shaping post-Saddam Iraq, chanting "Yes to freedom; Yes to Islam; No to America; No to Saddam."

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Looking on the bright side, both the meeting and the peaceful protest outside were symptoms of an emerging democracy, in which Iraqis are finally free to express their feelings. Retired General Jay Garner, the U.S. official in charge of administering postwar Iraq has warned that the ride will be bumpy, but that political turbulence is an integral part of birthing a democracy. But in Iraq, the turbulence threatens to turn bloody.

As the delegates met in Nasiriyah, the northern city of Mosul reportedly saw up to 12 people killed when a local protest against the governor installed by U.S. forces erupted in violence. Even in Baghdad, a handful of demonstrators gathered for an anti-American demonstration outside the Palestine Hotel, scene of last week's widely televised toppling of Saddam's statue. Further north in Kirkuk, forced expulsion of Arab Iraqis by armed Kurds continued, and near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit heavily armed local tribesmen fought fierce gun battles with marauding groups of Kurdish bandits. And in the southern town of al-Kut, a local Shiite leader and his supporters have taken control of city hall, and U.S. forces moving into the city have been greeted by protesting crowds chanting "No, no, Chalabi."

As General Garner warned ahead of Tuesday's meeting, if the U.S. or some form of Iraqi authority is not able to move quickly to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam's regime, "the vacuum gets filled in ways you don't want." But the precipitous collapse of the regime has unleashed dynamics beyond the control of U.S. planners. They had hoped to see an organized surrender of much of Saddam's army, which could allow a smooth and orderly transition. In the event, neither the coalition, nor the competing Iraqi opposition groups were prepared for the precipitous collapse of Saddam's regime.

Chalabi had been flown into Nasiriyah by the U.S. military during the last week of the war, his Pentagon backers perhaps hoping their man could steal a march on his rivals by taking charge of security arrangements on the ground in cities captured by the coalition. Instead, however, it appears to be the religious structures of the Shiite clergy — with which the U.S. has, at best, an awkward relationship — that have come to the fore, being the only coherent national organizational structure once the war left the Baath Party and the security services in disarray. Shiite Islam, unlike the Sunni variant, concentrates religious authority along local and regional lines. The ability of the Shiite clerical hierarchy in Najaf to project its authority into Baghdad, for example, has been visible over the past week: Acting on orders from Najaf, local Imams have organized their followers into armed neighborhood militia that have moved to stop looting, maintain order and restore basic services.

Shiite numbers — they're 60 percent of the population — and clerical organizational influence makes the coolness of much of the Shiite religious leadership towards the U.S. more troubling. Right now, the word from Najaf is that the Shiite leadership has no objection to the U.S. presence — as long as it is temporary. Of course there's a fierce struggle for influence among Shiite clerics right now, in which context a prominent pro-U.S. ayatollah was stabbed to death last week. And many Iraqi Shiites take their politics secular. But SCIRI's leadership has considerable influence in Najaf, and if they're alienated from the process launched by General Garner, political stability could prove elusive. If the U.S. objective is to exclude groups with ties to Iran, that could put it on a collision course with many Iraqi Shia. If not, the SCIRI's objections may be overcome — the group has emphasized that it is not demanding Shiite control of a future Iraqi government. And it has previously worked with Kurdish factions of the exiled opposition and even Chalabi's INC, and its leaders are demanding the speedy implementation of political transition plans previously agreed among the exiles.

After a general discussion of principles, Tuesday's meeting resolved, simply, to meet again 10 days from now. And the U.S. plans to hold similar meetings in other parts of the country, hoping to arrange some form of national assembly to adopt a constitution and plan for elections to be held within a year. Given the extent of discord, that timetable may be optimistic.

Iraq's fractured political landscape, meanwhile, presents a major challenge to the U.S. troops currently filling the power vacuum. While Shiite protestors are keeping their anti-American attacks verbal, diehard Saddam loyalists and Arab jihadis who came to Iraq to help fight the invasion continue to target U.S. troops. Last week, some 300 suicide bomber explosive belts were found in Baghdad, and some 80 belts are believed to have been removed from the same cache before they were found. Tuesday's shooting in Mosul reportedly occurred after elements in the protesting crowd began shooting at the U.S. troops guarding the governor. Deploying forces to stop looting and ensure the basic security of the local population inevitably makes U.S. personnel more vulnerable to sneak attacks than when they were tearing through Republican Guard lines in their armor.

In the military campaign to oust Saddam, very little went according to predetermined plans. U.S. commanders improvised all along the way, first when they encountered more resistance in the south than expected, and then when Republican Guard units failed to show up and fight for Baghdad, or Mosul, or Tikrit. And like the generals who waged the war, General Garner may find that flexibility is his crucial weapon in waging the peace.