How Not to Reinvent Iraq

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The attacks on America's troops are continuing. One is killed in a Baghdad ambush. Another is shot while buying something from a street vender elsewhere in the capital. Then there's the mess over in Falluja, an hour's drive to the west. You'd think that the country is rising up against the occupation. But, despite the headlines, there's still a good deal of support for the U.S. forces among Iraqis, or so I found traveling around the country speaking to leaders and, mainly, to ordinary folks.

At the Mohsen mosque in Sadr City, a Shiite Muslim slum in Baghdad, I watched tens of thousands of people cheering a militant cleric, Moqtada Sadr, who is refusing to deal with the U.S. authorities in Iraq. But his antagonism isn't as surprising, perhaps, as the friendliness of the flock of 10-year-olds outside the mosque. I couldn't shake them off as they persisted in giving me the thumbs-up sign and repeating things like, "Bush, good," and "Thank you, Mr. Bush."

OK, maybe they used to say the same thing about Saddam Hussein. But then I went out on a patrol with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Sadr City, which has some of the meanest streets in Iraq. The kids everywhere treated the GIs as friends, which I took as some sort of measure of how many of their parents must feel, too. It's possible they were nervous, or putting up a facade, at the sight of heavily armed foreign soldiers in their midst. But I found the same sentiment while interviewing Iraqis in different parts of the country. Whenever I spoke with a small group, one or two of them would trail me afterwards, and eventually say, "We thank America, thank you."

If anything, many Iraqi leaders are even more grateful. They know better than most how difficult it was to dislodge the tyrant from Tikrit. Most of the attacks on U.S. forces are coming either from Saddam's loyalists, who will have no role in the new Iraq that most Iraqis want to build, or from fundamentalists from other Arab states who, with Saddam's help in many instances, slipped into Iraq for another jihad.

The problem is that the U.S. can't take Iraqi gratitude for granted much longer. Three months after liberation, people are growing tired of not having jobs or even, too much of the time, electricity. And what may really be undermining American's plans for Iraq is not the attacks on U.S. troops but the hesitancy to give Iraqis what President Bush promised — freedom and democracy. Everywhere I went in Iraq, I found disappointment and anger over U.S. ideas to establish bodies appointed by Americans rather than elected by Iraqis to function as a quasi interim government and a constitution-writing assembly.

When it comes to the interim government, which the U.S. wanted in place sometime later this month, Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer may have a case. U.S. officials want to keep the ultimate decision-making power in their hands during the transition. They are justifiably concerned that Iraqi parties have scant experience with pluralism and may mess things up. Iraq's Kurdish factions used to go to war over smuggling revenues, so you can imagine what kind of scrum there might be over Iraq's oil wealth. Anyway, the U.S. plan isn't to exclude Iraqis altogether. All the parties would have top people in government ministries, even serving as ministers.

With their bitter memories of colonialism, Iraqis are likely to resist any American push to determine who should write their constitution. But there is little reason to think that Iraqis are not up to the task. All the major parties and ethnic groups say they are committed to a united Iraq. The nightmare of Saddam's one-party state has made all Iraqis skeptical about the concentration of power. Having been joined for so long in their suffering, Iraqis have common ground with which to shape their future.

The unspoken argument for hand-picking Iraqis is Washington's paranoia that in free elections, Iranian-backed fundamentalists will dominate the Shiites, and as 60% of the population, the Shiites will dominate Iraq. The Bush Administration fears they will replace Saddam with Khomeini. But Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani is the top Shiite cleric in Iraq and he opposes theocractic rule. Rather than leading chants of "Death to America," he's been working quietly to help restore order. But the moderates will lose if America is seen to be marginalizing the Shiites. They win if the Shiites see that America is helping construct a fair new order in Iraq. There is no escaping the reality that a majority of Iraqis are Shiites and they are expecting their slice of the cake.

A senior Iraqi party official who has had his ups and downs with Washington over the years told me he's worried that the Administration's obsession with controlling Iraq's future stems from Bush's re-election requirements. "They don't want to spoil this wonderful victory" over Saddam, he explains. The true risk, this official points out, is that the U.S. will do just that if it fails to involve Iraqis in their destiny.

There's another way to look at it. If a substantial number of Iraqis believe that the U.S. is doing the right thing, the attacks on the troops will probably remain an irritation, but not a revolution.