After the war

Can a people unfamiliar with rights and politics unite to fill Iraq's void in leadership, or will deeply held hatreds plunge the nation into sectarian violence and chaos?

April 13, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The fall of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship strips Iraq of a heavy blanket of oppression that has endured for a generation. The future of this country depends on what has been hiding beneath that blanket.

In the best-case scenario, the blanket is lifted to reveal a people yearning to breathe freely and ready to take an active role in securing that freedom for all. Iraq emerges as a multicultural democracy, making the peaceful transition to modernity that has eluded so many Arab countries. The model could be South Africa.

In the worst-case scenario, the loss of the imposed order brings chaos. Iraq dissolves into bickering political and ethnic groups, all seeking to impose a separate vision on the nation, resorting to violence because that is the only way of enforcing political power they know. The model would be Yugoslavia.

The ingredients for both recipes are present in this ancient land.

On the plus side, Iraq is blessed with oil wealth that can fuel its economic engine. Though devastated by a decade of sanctions, there is still an educated middle class that can make that engine run. And there is a heritage of secularism that should aid in the mediation between the dominance of Islam and transition to democracy.

"In the best case, you have the rise of indigenous political organizations coming together to create something close to a constitutional convention that would debate alternative political structures," says Waleed Hazbun, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "The United States can't create those structures, but it can create the forum."

Though he is not certain what will happen, Louis J. Cantori, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, can paint a peaceful picture of a future Iraq.

"The constitutional future will be one of autonomous regions," he says. "One of the regions will be for the Kurds in the north, the Shia will be another one in the south and the Sunni triangle around Baghdad will be the symbolic authoritative center. It's all very workable. The Kurds have worked out the modalities for this."

But that reveals one of the main problems facing Iraq -- its ethnic divisions. The Kurds have long sought total autonomy over their land. The Sunni Muslims are the traditional rulers and dominated Hussein's Baath Party. The Shiites have a majority of Iraq's population but have been traditionally oppressed.

Even within these groups there are further divisions -- between oft-warring Kurdish parties, between the poor and wealthy Shiites, between those who see their prime allegiance to the state of Iraq and those who push a pan-Arab agenda, among others.

"In instability, people can fall back on their primary allegiances," their ethnic tribe or religious group, says Madeline Zilfi, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There can be a huge amount of distress, disruptions, destabilization. ... If that's freedom, I don't know whether it's better or worse than what Saddam gave them."

A major problem is that there is no obvious leader who can span the myriad schisms and rally Iraqis behind their new country. That's a fundamental difference from what happened in South Africa where Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress were the clear successors to power. There are some who think Mandela's Iraqi counterpart is Ahmad Chalabi, who leads a London-based exile group called, not coincidentally, the Iraqi National Congress, which has received U.S. funding.

But unlike Mandela, Chalabi has not spent his time out of power in prison, but living a comfortable life in exile. In Jordan, he was convicted in absentia on bank fraud charges.

Divide within U.S.

Some praise Chalabi, a mathematician who left Iraq in 1958 to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as an idealist seeking the best for his country. Others denounce him as an opportunist. Whatever the truth, that division of opinion is emblematic of another division that might plague a peaceful future in Iraq -- between the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of State.

Most of Chalibi's friends in Washington come from the Defense Department and allies who led the ideological push for the Iraqi invasion -- including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Defense Department adviser Richard Perle. His detractors come from the State Department and the CIA, though to further complicate the picture, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey is said to be a supporter.

When Chalabi, accompanied by a small army of exiled Iraqis, was flown into Iraq by the U.S. military last week, some thought it was an attempt by those friends to put him in place for a leadership role.

"I think Chalabi's arrival was a coup d'etat against the State Department," says Cantori.

Chalibi's supporters say that as a Shiite he has credibility with that majority population group. But Hazbun says that, unlike most Shiites, Chalibi's family was well-off.

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