Where Are the Iraqis?
The most troubling thing is that the passivity and irrelevance of the new Iraqi security forces reflect the mood of most Iraqis, who remain reluctant to fight for a new type of Iraq. They may not be enthusiastic about the occupation nor eager to make common cause with murderous insurgents or theocratic narcissists like Sadr, but they are either unwilling or unable to play the leadership role that is sorely needed.
Calls by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, for direct elections and a quick handover of sovereignty, and his rejection of the legitimacy of the Governing Council and the interim constitution, have given the CPA headaches. But the CPA has come to value Sistani as a reasonable partner and a conduit to Iraq's Shiites. He is willing to negotiate, uninterested in installing himself as a political leader and quick to advise his followers against violence.
Now, though, as the United States seeks to crush a Shiite militia, Sistani mixes pro forma calls for calm with criticism of U.S. tactics. He is rumored to strongly dislike Sadr (a sentiment returned by the younger cleric), but before the protesters turned violent he explicitly supported their demands. How much power Sistani actually wields is open to question. He is a revered figure here, but also a leader who was careful enough to survive for decades under Hussein. It's impossible to tell how much of Sistani's popularity and longevity is due to the care he takes to remain uncontroversial.
On March 31, as I smoked cigarettes with black-clad Mahdi Army foot soldiers who'd come to peacefully protest in front of CPA headquarters, they told me that there was no difference between Sadr and Sistani. Maybe, but if there are any differences, do not look for bold stands from Sistani, a man who has positioned himself to earn the respect of both L. Paul Bremer and Sadr's militia.
Like Sistani, many members of the Governing Council have also avoided taking bold stands. Late last week Adnan Pachachi, a moderate Sunni, supported the campaign against the insurgents while questioning America's heavy-handed tactics.
It's possible that the moderates are fence-sitting because they want the United States to do the dirty work of annihilating their enemies without being seen as allying themselves with American efforts in the country. If that's true, it simply underlines the fact that the United States and its Iraqi partners have not succeeded in creating a political environment in which Iraqis take responsibility for their own security and society.
There is an enemy out there. It may not be the case that the moderates are cynically positioning themselves to emerge as the third way between American brutality on the one hand and religious radicals and insurgents on the other. But they need to recognize that moderation isn't simply a set of policies to be implemented, but an ideal that must be shouted out and fought for.
There's still time, however, for Iraq's moderates to come forth and use the only weapon at their disposal -- persuasion. On Friday the Marines suspended their operations in Fallujah and said they would give members of the Governing Council a chance to seek a political solution. Yesterday, two council representatives were in Fallujah, negotiating with both sides. If successful, the Governing Council could gain a measure of credibility that it has lacked thus far.
The hope of the Iraqi moderates is that the current violence is more a product of American missteps and heavy-handedness than of some fundamental opposition to representative government along the lines envisioned by the CPA and the Governing Council. And they may have a point; I've watched hostility towards Americans in Baghdad rise with each day U.S. troops pound Fallujah.
What does that mean for the U.S. plan to hand over sovereignty on June 30, and possible elections next year? The quiet moderates may reflect a genuine sentiment among Iraqis, who prize their freedom but resent the occupation. But last week's message is this: With new Iraqi security forces outgunned and intimidated by insurgents, and firebrand clerics garnering more energetic support than moderate voices, it would be a huge gamble to assume that stability will come after the handover of sovereignty or the departure of U.S. troops. Will Iraqis recognize the legitimacy of their new government? Would they dare to if they wanted to?
Meanwhile, the CPA needs friends now. In the southern city of Kut, tribal elders fed up with Sadr are said to be cooperating with the United States to wrest control of the town from Sadr's militia. While that would be a tactical victory, it ought to give pause to those who envision a liberal democracy taking root in Iraq. Religious authorities and tribal elders, not the yet-to-be-elected members of a Western-style parliament, are the leaders who matter to most Iraqis.
I worry that the structure of a federal liberal democracy is simply not an inspiring prospect for Iraqis, who place such an emphasis on religious, family and tribal ties. It's no foregone conclusion that, if only the insurgency would go away, Iraqis would embrace the brand of representative government they're being offered.
Charles Crain is a freelance journalist in Baghdad. He has written for Cox News Service and the Raleigh News & Observer.
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