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Guelph Mercury (Ontario, Canada) February 01, 2005

Troubles in Iraq may be just beginning

By Gwynne Dyer

Good can come out of evil. A democratic, peaceful and independent Iraq could yet be the final result of the U.S. invasion of 2003, whether that was precisely what the Bush administration intended or not. But it still doesn't seem very likely.

Sunday's election was just one more in the series of "turning points" that have been touted in Washington as the beginning of the end of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation: We had the appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the "handover of sovereignty" to a revamped but still appointed "interim government" in June 2004, and now this election: all allegedly watershed events, but the river's flow has not been reversed.

True, the election was not the bloodbath that had been widely predicted. Shia Arabs voted to claim the long-denied dominant position in Iraqi politics that their numbers (60 per cent of the population) entitle them to, Kurds voted to reaffirm their current semi-detached relationship to the Iraqi state, and Sunni Arabs mostly didn't vote.

That 57 per cent participation figure probably conceals a 75 per cent or better rate among Shia Arabs and Kurds and 40 per cent or less among Sunni Arabs.

It is mainly Sunni Arabs who are waging the fight against the United States in Iraq right now, and this does not suggest that the "resistance" (al-muqawama) is about to go into a decline. Indeed, Lieut.-Gen. James J. Lovelace Jr., the U.S. army's top operations officer, predicted last week that some 120,000 U.S. soldiers would have to stay in Iraq for at least two more years -- and "a worst-case scenario would be a lot more."

Add in 30,000 U.S. Marines and special forces, 10,000 British troops, and the few thousand remaining odds and ends from the rapidly departing third-country contingents, and that means 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq until at least the start of 2007.

In fact, the Pentagon, at least, is still counting on an even longer stay. The media chatter about "exit strategies," as though the White House were desperately seeking a fast way out of Iraq, but there is no evidence that the Bush administration has yet accepted that the game is up there.

John Pike, head of the independent defence research group GlobalSecurity.org, an , recently told The Independent in London that he counted 12 "enduring bases" under construction by the U.S. in Iraq.

There was other evidence that the U.S. intended a long stay, too: "How many fighter jets does the new Iraqi army have? None. How many tanks does it have? None. What do you call a country with no tanks and no fighter planes? You call it a protectorate.

They're so far away from giving Iraq a normal military you don't even have industry seminars salivating over the prospect of selling them stuff."

So official Washington still expects to stay, and almost all Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave quite soon. The votes will be counted within a week or less, the new assembly will meet by the end of the month, and there will be a more or less elected government (minus most Sunni Arab votes) in place by the end of March. That's when it gets really interesting.

So far, all the Iraqi officials since the fall of Saddam have been American appointees who can be counted on not to bite the hand that feeds them -- like Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a former CIA agent who returned from exile with the invading U.S. troops.

Now there is the prospect of elected Iraqis who may demand a U.S. military withdrawal. First among them are the Shia parties, brought together under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's leadership in the United Iraqi Alliance (the Shia house).

These parties have their own militias and most recruits to the new Iraqi army and police force are poor Shias, so they will probably not hesitate to demand an early U.S. withdrawal if they take the leading role in a new coalition government. But they may also be excluded from that government.

Secular Shias fear that the mullahs secretly intend to create an Islamic state like Iran despite their constant denials, and they have voted in surprisingly large numbers for Allawi's group of parties, the Iraqi List. Allawi, too, is Shia but secular.

It is widely assumed that the Shia are keener on an Islamic state than the Sunni, but they are not: a recent poll showed that Sunni Arabs are twice as likely to favour a full-fledged Islamic government as Shia Arabs.

This sudden Sunni piety has much to do with the fact that the Sunnis , who are losing their traditional place as Iraq's ruling minority, are the ones in revolt, and therefore, the ones most drawn to radical forms of Islam. But it does raise the possibility of an anti-American alliance between the Sunni rebels and the Shia religious parties.

If Allawi can create a basically pro-American coalition out of his own secular Shia party, bits and pieces of secular Sunni parties, and the Kurds, then Sistani's Shia house could end up frozen out of power.

That may be the only way to forestall a demand by Sistani's allies for an early American departure, so Washington is likely to push it. And if Sistani is frozen out, then perhaps his patience (or that of his younger colleagues) runs out at last.

Then the Shia revolt begins in earnest, and America's security problems in Iraq quadruple overnight.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based, independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Copyright 2005, Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.