Simmering ethnic tensions may derail a democratic Iraq

Shiite call for elections, not caucuses, complicates U.S. plans for handover

January 17, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After vowing to move Iraq toward democracy, the United States finds itself bogged down in an ethnic power struggle like those that persuaded some Middle Eastern leaders that only an iron-fisted dictator could hold the fractious nation together.

Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric is balking at a U.S.-backed plan for an interim government, fearing that it would deprive the long-oppressed Shiite majority of a share of power consistent with its numbers.

But caving in to his demands could further inflame Iraq's Sunni minority, which has controlled the levers of power in Iraq from the days of the Ottoman Empire through Saddam Hussein's rule. The Sunni fear of losing influence and their accustomed share of the nation's oil wealth is seen as a major factor in prolonging the violent insurgency against American forces.

Kurds in the north, meanwhile, are pushing for a system that will grant them a large measure of autonomy, something that alarms Iraq's neighbors, particularly the Turks, who fear agitation for a unified Kurdish state.

These struggles lie at the heart of the Bush administration's scramble for ways to salvage its Iraq policy, including an appeal for help to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a meeting set for Monday.

U.S. officials want to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis by July 1, which would allow Bush to disengage the United States from its difficult role as an occupying power before his re-election campaign starts up in earnest in the fall.

The problems facing U.S. occupiers were not totally unexpected in the days before Bush launched the U.S.-led invasion to topple Hussein in March. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in February, he warned, "Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy."

Bush, nevertheless, rallied Americans for war in part with a vision of a future Iraq that would serve as a "dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."

"There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken," Bush told his audience that day. "The nation of Iraq - with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people - is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom."

Far from serving as an example of democracy, however, Iraq today offers an object lesson in the difficulty of transforming a nation of competing ethnic and religious groups, all pulled together within borders drawn by Europeans after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. After a British-installed monarchy was overthrown in the 1950s, Iraq endured a decade of violence and instability, followed by the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Hussein's Baath Party.

The political problems also expose anew what many critics have described as inadequate planning by the Bush administration for what it would face in post-Hussein Iraq.

Officials underestimated the extent to which Iraqi governmental institutions had been weakened by years of U.N. sanctions and the subsequent damage caused by postwar looting.

Although numerous political parties have sprouted in postwar Iraq, polls show that few have a broad base of support. Instead, the Iraqi scene appears rife with ethnic and tribal competition, causing some analysts to fear that decades-old fault lines within this tribal society will come to dominate the political transition, possibly leading to civil war.

Until November, the Bush administration had in mind a gradual process of guiding Iraq toward democracy before it returned the country to self-rule, and refused to set a departure date.

That plan called for gradually returning power to Iraqi institutions, writing a constitution that would be ratified by the population, then holding elections for a new government. Only after that government was in place would the provisional authority yield full power to Iraqis.

The constitutional process was widely seen as crucial, since it would have to balance the interests of Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups and give all a stake in holding the country together.

When the drafting of a constitution got off to a slow start and Iraqi demands increased for an end to the occupation, the administration agreed in November with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to return Iraq to self-rule July 1, well before a constitution is complete and elections are held.

Between now and the end of June, the council is supposed to approve the structure of a provisional government that would last until a permanent body is created next year. Under the revamped American plan, caucuses are to be held in each of Iraq's 18 provinces to pick members of a transitional assembly, which in turn will pick a provisional government.

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