The irregulars

April 21, 2005

THE PRESIDENT of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, says that if the official Iraqi security forces would only get out of the way, the country's "popular forces" could stamp out the insurgency in no time. What he had in mind, principally, were the Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main Shiite group and the beneficiary of backing from Iran.

These are semi-private, semi-trained, semi-reliable armies - which may make them better fighters than the official uniformed force. The United States is adamantly opposed to their being used by the government and given legitimate status, and for perfectly good reasons. Here are just two: It would end any hope that the Sunni minority might one day be reconciled to the new government, and it would be just a matter of time before these two main militias turned their guns on each other.

The alternative is to rebuild a national army, a project the Pentagon has been pursuing with considerable ups and downs along the way. The initial dismal performance of the security forces persuaded the Americans to switch gears and recruit former Iraqi officers - that is to say, former members of the Baath Party - because at least they know something about soldiering and about the terrain. That makes the Kurds and Shiites, who suffered terribly at the hands of the Baathists under Saddam Hussein, apoplectic, and it's not hard to see their point.

Mr. Talabani is a moderate on this question. Baathists can remain in the civil service, he believes, but put a gun in their hands? No way. Others in the new government say: No former Baathists. Anywhere. Period.

This leaves the United States as virtually the sole champion of people who took an active part in enforcing the rule of one of the cruelest and most ruthless political parties in history. These are the people, Americans are now led to believe, who were the reason for the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, because they stood in the way of democracy. Now Washington is counting on them to defend democracy. Sadly, it makes a certain sort of sense. But formerly totalitarian societies that try to muddle along without making some effort to pursue justice and reconciliation have not been notably successful. The former officers of Saddam Hussein are useful as men, but as symbols to the rest of the country they are poisonous.

The choices are all unpalatable. The best argument the United States can make to the Kurds and Shiites is not one that appeals to a greater Iraqi patriotism. Rather, it must make the case that a system of autonomous militias, over the long run, will practically guarantee bloodshed on all sides.

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