Stealth puppetry

April 08, 2003

ALL OF A SUDDEN there appears outside the city of Nasiriyah, courtesy of the U.S. Army, something called the Free Iraqi Forces. This is a battalion of fighters armed and equipped by the United States that will participate in the pacification of the Iraqi people. It is under the leadership of the Iraqi National Congress, a group of squabbling exiles headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a banker who left his native land 45 years ago and now has designs on the country's top job.

If there were a worse way to take over a country it would be difficult to imagine.

The ostensible idea behind the Free Iraqi Forces is that they will assist their American and British allies in dealing with the local population; they will be the good face of the occupation.

Undoubtedly, most or nearly all of the 700 men who were airlifted into southern Iraq by the Pentagon are opponents of tyranny and dedicated to making theirs a better country. That's not the point. The point is that the Iraqi National Congress, which is distrusted by the State Department but lionized by the Pentagon, has a dubious claim on a leadership role, and that any group that tries to come to power under the wing of the U.S. military is going to have a pretty hard time of it establishing any legitimacy.

Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, has properly declared that all Iraqis will have much to contribute to the country's future, and this has been interpreted as a warning shot across the Pentagon's bow. On Sunday, the deputy secretary of defense, Paul D. Wolfowitz, promised that the deployment of the Free Iraqi Forces battalion was in no way intended to give the Iraqi National Congress a leg up over any potential rivals.

It's good of him to say so. But the reality is that Mr. Chalabi's men are establishing themselves at a southern base, under U.S. sponsorship, and of course they're armed. Anybody want to challenge them?

A year ago there was a regime change in Afghanistan - a country that never seems to have engaged the Bush administration's interest, despite its fundamental role in Sept. 11 - and the contrast with what's happening now in Iraq is stark.

Yes, Hamid Karzai was Washington's favorite, but unlike Mr. Chalabi, he got to Afghanistan (from exile in Pakistan, not London) under his own steam. He was and is respected by his fellow Pashtuns. He is a man of intelligence and integrity. He is not a banker with a murky past.

An interim government was put together at a conference of tribal and ethnic leaders in Bonn, Germany, at which Mr. Karzai made several fundamental compromises; nevertheless, it immediately established his legitimacy. To this day, of course, the Afghan government is shaky at best - but no one can accuse Washington of having foisted it on the Afghan people.

The Free Iraqi Forces are going about it all wrong. Who in Iraq will ever believe they're not simply a Pentagon auxiliary? And what damage will that do down the road? They're not doing themselves or America any favors.

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