The people's choice

April 27, 2003

THE SHIITE clerics in Iraq and Jay Garner, the new American administrator there, keep talking as though they agree: The United States, they both say, should clear out at the earliest possible moment.

So why the lingering feeling that something, or someone, isn't on track here?

When the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, Washington said that the idea was to endow the Iraqi people with the gifts of freedom and democracy. But as soon as the old regime was gone, the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq - or at least the imams claiming to speak for the Shiite majority - told their liberators: Great, thank you, we get the point, now goodbye.

Well, that wasn't the point, exactly. The Bush administration has been squirming on this one. Democracy, yes; theocracy, no. Yes, it's true that no one was more oppressed than the Shiite majority, but no, to expect the Shiites now to assume power - well, democracy is as much a cultural frame of mind as it is a one-man, one-vote sort of thing.

Let's blame Iran, says Donald H. Rumsfeld helpfully. Then the defense secretary goes on to say that the United States won't let "a few clerics" start running everything in Iraq.

OK. At least he's being straightforward. Here's some more straight talk:

American policy-makers were taken by surprise when the Shiites in Iraq showed such gumption and such organization so quickly. American troops didn't try to interfere with the long-banned pilgrimage to Karbala last week, and that showed a great deal of good sense. It's not clear that Iraqi Shiites will act as a monolithic group, or take orders from Iran.

A fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iraq would be a giant headache; among other things, it could prove to be a far more fertile ground for terrorists than its predecessor.

The suppression of Islamic fundamentalists - By whom? American soldiers? The Sunni elite? Remnants of Mr. Hussein's secret police? - could be a dicey proposition. American patriots today should remember that the patriots of an earlier time once fought under the slogan, "Don't tread on me." That's an idea that's hard to shake, once it takes hold.

Those who argue that early elections and an abrupt American withdrawal would undermine the development of real democracy have a good point. What Iraq needs next is a government that has a general sense of representative legitimacy to it - and that can deliver to its people. Deliver what? Order, water, law, justice, housing, education, a functioning economy and a promise that grievances will be heard.

All of this suggests that America will need to act with a deft hand in the weeks and months and - yes, Mr. Garner and the Shiite imams notwithstanding - years to come.

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