- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

Rivalry among religious, ethnic and civil factions fighting for power in Iraq is threatening U.S. hopes of quickly establishing a permanent peace and democracy in a country emerging from Saddam Hussein's repression.
The absence of an accepted Iraqi leader or interim American leader in Baghdad, and the rumblings of strife among the rival groups, has led Iraqi representatives to say the troubles will worsen unless the United States acts soon.
An early sign of problems ahead came yesterday, with Muslim clerics calling for American forces to leave and the establishment of a strict Islamic state.
The Pentagon's choice to run Iraq after the fall of Saddam, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, has yet to arrive in Baghdad.
Likewise, an Iraqi interim authority has yet to materialize, although formerly exiled opposition leaders are planning at least two separate meetings to establish such a power.
Amid the chaos in Baghdad, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to demand that the Americans leave the country, illustrating the tenuousness of the U.S. occupation.
Filling the political vacuum are tribal and religious leaders, such as the powerful exiled leader of Iraq's majority Shi'ite population, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who has exhorted Iraqis from his base in neighboring Iran to rise up against "U.S. domination."
Ayatollah al-Hakim leads the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
"We warned the allies there will be chaos. We expected that to happen. We believe an Iraqi government should have taken over the day after Baghdad's fall," said SCIRI spokesman Hamid al-Bayati in London.
The SCIRI says it has thousands of fighters ready to go into battle to stabilize the country if necessary.
But Shi'ites, many of whom were on the receiving end of Saddam's brutality, are also split among those who stayed in Iraq and suffered under Saddam, those who collaborated, and those who fled Iraq, such as the SCIRI.
"It's not just a question of bringing Shi'ites on board but which Shi'ites," explained Rajan Menon, an international affairs analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
In the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, moderate Shi'ite leader Seyyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who worked with the State Department to prepare a stable, multiethnic post-Saddam Iraq, was hacked to death by a crowd when he met there recently with a cleric who had collaborated with Saddam's regime.
Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, for decades played Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds against each other.
But now cracks are beginning to appear among the Sunnis.
"It's a division between repressors and the repressed: those whose hands are blood-drenched and those who had their throats squeezed," said Mr. Menon.
In addition, there are disagreements among the religious groups as to whether a new Iraqi government should be secular, with Islam playing more of a cultural role, or if Islamic law should govern civil relations.
Tensions are also running high in northern Iraq, where Kurds have been evicting from their homes Arabs sent by Saddam to occupy the region, as they lay claim to homes left years ago under pressure from the Saddam.
And even the Kurds, unified in their fight to overthrow Saddam and aid U.S. forces, are fractured. There are two Kurdish political parties, two dialects and plenty of distrust between them.
Pulling all these factions together to create a lasting peace and democracy without seeming to lay too heavy a hand on the outcome "is the kind of process that will test the U.S. character," Mr. Menon said.
"There will be lots of squabbling, internecine fighting, many meetings, many setbacks," he said. "The key is not even winning the peace but managing the peace."

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