Facing Reality In Iraq
By Terrell E. Arnold

The murderous explosion this week in the holy Shiia city of Najaf said with brutal clarity that it is time to examine the utility of Iraqi occupation > and the American role in it. With at least 95 people killed and more than 150 wounded, this is the worst killing spree in a violence prone post-war Iraq. It most likely was, as some commentators say, an act of Iraqi Shiia extremists against Shiia moderates willing to work with the occupying forces. It could about equally well have been a Sunni Baathist scheme to frighten Shiites away from the coalition. But it should also have been a > loud and clear message to the US coalition leaders that as a rejection of the occupation, at least some Iraqis feel strongly enough to kill their own people. The Shiites are the most diverse cluster of Islamic opinion, but the root cause of the bombings was not about doctrinal differences within Shia Islam; it was about Shiia support for the occupation.
Mohamed Bakir al Hakim was a leading Shiia cleric and probably the only one who could have led the majority Shiia community into at least a moderately secular Iraqi government. Because of the importance of Najaf in Shiia Islam, Hakim's decision to support a cooperative process with the coalition would have carried weight both within and outside Iraq. Whoever replaces him must contemplate the horrifying lessons of the bombings and decide in light of them how far he can push the center of Shiia opinion about and tolerance of the occupation.
The most obvious prospect is that Shiia tolerance of the occupation will diminish. If it occurs, that shift will be a disaster for occupation designers of a new government. There is already resistance to coalition, really US insistence on an American style democracy that, if created, would minimize clerical influences on Iraqi governance. That resistance appears to be shared by the Sunnis who appreciate outsider lectures about the role of Islam in government no more than the Shiia. The coolness to an American style democracy would also extend to the Kurds many of whom are Sunnis and many are Shiites.
A clear and unmistakable message emerges: The move to install an American style democracy in Iraq should not only be dropped; it should be obviously and publicly abandoned. The critical question is what should be put in its place. The most workable answer is whatever the Iraqis themselves can agree upon.
Where in the evolution of its political system is Iraq at this time? From the era of the Ottoman Turks, close to four hundred years, until after the expulsion of the British after World War II, Iraqis were ruled by outsiders. Their experience since then has been determined by strong men, the most enduring of them being Saddam Hussein. In short, while among the peoples of the world's oldest seats of civilization, the Iraqi people have virtually no experience with self-government. While the emergence of the Baath party and expulsion of the British showed some promise of political maturing, that promise was suppressed by Saddam and his immediate predecessors. Because their operations remain almost wholly military, the American and British occupiers are contributing nothing to Iraqi political enlightenment.
The message of Najaf is that the American/British role in designing Iraq's political future must be redefined and reduced. That is critical because Iraqi's who ally with the coalition are being treated by other Iraqis as outsiders. The other meaning of Najaf for Iraqis, not necessarily only Shiia, is that cooperating with the coalition is dangerous to one's health. The suggestion, expressed by several observers, that the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad was really an attack on the coalition is another indicator that major changes in the occupation must occur and occur quickly.
Both the needs of the Iraqis and the need of the United States to rehabilitate itself internationally can be met by turning the entire task over to the United Nations. That is no simple matter, because the UN has been badly burned in Iraq by the attack on its headquarters and the loss of one of the world's greatest nation builders, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Change will not be easy for the United States because the neo-conservative advocates of the US presence in Iraq have an inordinate ego attachment to going it alone. But much good could come of the change.
Because the Bush team has not leveled with the public, nor are team members agreed on the facts, the costs of Iraq have become major political liabilities. The dollar cost, which administration leaders have refused to estimate, are obviously ballooning and, in the estimate of Iraq program administrator, L. Paul Bremer, will be in his words "tens and tens and tens of billions" more than the $4 billion monthly now being spent. Daily death and wounding of American troops are generating a wave of public dismay and worry with the occupation. Iraqi refusal to take the American presence with good will increases pressure for early departure. Lack of major foreign participation presages mounting US costs and prolonged exposure of US forces to violence. The two ways out are to attract others in and to end the occupation as soon as possible.
While the Bush team has struggled to avoid it, turning the problem over to the United Nations is the only reasonable answer. As former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke observed in the September 2 issue of Newsweek, there are command arrangements that could make that shift a reality. The shift first requires US recognition that nation building and peacekeeping are global missions for which the United States has shown itself ill prepared and desperately needs help. It next requires abandonment of obvious biases such as Rumsfeld's objection to UN blue helmets in the forefront of the task. It then requires US recognition that the weaknesses US hardliners object to in the UN are in reality mirror images of the lack of US support for UN operations. It also requires that the United States define and carry out its purposes for being in Iraq in ways that are acceptable to the international community.
Finally, giving the task to the United Nations requires the US to move back to the position of respectable world leader, a position it recklessly abandoned in the post-9-11 rush to Iraq. It is hard to see any losses for the United States in this move.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at




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