If you had asked an intelligence analyst two years ago to describe the worst possible political outcome following an American invasion of Iraq, he might well have answered that it would be a regime dominated by conservative Shiite Muslim clerics with links to neighboring Iran. But just such a regime now seems likely to emerge after Iraq's Jan. 30 elections.
Iran is about to hit the jackpot in Iraq, wagering the blood and treasure of the United States. Last week an alliance of Iraqi Shiite leaders announced that its list of candidates will be headed by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the clerical leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. This Shiite list, backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is likely to be the favorite of Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority and win the largest share of votes next month.
Wary of trusting Iraqi Shiites to manage the campaign, the Iranian intelligence service has been pumping millions of dollars and hundreds of operatives into the country. The Iranians have also recruited assassination squads to kill potential Iraqi rivals, according to several Iraqi officials. One Iraqi Shiite tells me the Iranians view the hit teams as a kind of "insurance policy" to make sure they prevail, even if the U.S.-backed election process should fail.
Iraqis who aren't part of the Shiite religious juggernaut are frightened by what's happening. The Iraqi interim defense minister, Hazim Shalan, this week described the Shiite political alliance as an "Iranian list" created by those who wanted "turbaned clerics to rule" in Iraq. Shalan is no saint himself -- like interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, he was once part of Saddam Hussein's Baathist network. But he and Allawi speak for many millions of Iraqis who don't want to see an Iran-leaning clerical government but are powerless to stop it.
Senior U.S. commanders in Iraq had hoped Allawi's slate would win in January, but they are beginning to assess the consequences of Shiite victory. Not only would it empower the mullahs, it would alienate Iraq's 20 percent Sunni Arab population, who mostly won't be able to vote next month because of the continuing wave of terrorism in Sunni areas. As sectarian tensions increase, post-election, so will the danger of a real civil war. What will become of the U.S. military mission in Iraq? Will we really arm one group of Iraqis in a sectarian conflict against another?
Given the stakes for the United States in these elections, you might think we would quietly be trying to influence the outcome. But I am told that congressional insistence that the Iraqi elections be "democratic" has blocked any covert efforts to help America's allies. That may make sense to ethicists in San Francisco, but how about to the U.S. troops on the ground?
I talked by telephone this week to a Sunni tribal leader from Ramadi who, in a more rational world, would be one of the building blocks of a new Iraq. His name is Talal Gaaod, and his father is a leading sheik in the Duleim tribe, which has power in what has become known as the Sunni Triangle, west of Baghdad. Gaaod, who earned his undergraduate and master's degrees at the University of Southern California, has tried various ways to help stabilize his area. He proposed a tribal security force in Anbar province earlier this year that was backed by local Marine commanders but later vetoed in Baghdad. Encouraged by Jordan, he brought about 50 Iraqi Sunni leaders to Amman in November to discuss Iraq's problems. But the Jordanians canceled the meeting after the U.S. offensive in Fallujah began. He wants to believe the United States can create a better Iraq, but he's losing hope.
"It is a miserable situation," Gaaod told me. "My people feel that Iraq is going into a deep hole. Things are not improving but getting worse. A lot of good people are leaving the country -- I'm talking about technocrats, tribal leaders, the middle class. I blame the United States for giving the clergy a front to lead events in Iraq. I am sure you will regret this one day. It will not work. One hundred years from now, it will not work."
Iraq's Shiite majority deserves its day in the sun, after decades of oppression, and the January elections should endorse the reality of majority rule. But future historians will wonder how it happened that the United States came halfway around the world, suffered more than 1,200 dead and spent $200 billion to help install an Iraqi government whose key leaders were trained in Iran. Our Iraq policy may be full of good intentions, but in terms of strategy, it is a riderless horse.