- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

Was it only two weeks ago that America’s top administrator in Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, was waxing optimistic about the progress being made in the country?

Although Mr. Bremer had many positive accomplishments to highlight, the grim counterpoint of heightened violence during the last fortnight has done much to undermine his hopeful analysis of post-Saddam Iraq. In the wake of the truck bomb last week at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed one of the best international diplomats around, Sergio Vieira de Mello, even some in the Bush administration wedded to the notion that this should be exclusively “America’s show” are beginning to reluctantly accept that a review of policy options is needed.

The heretical idea that the U.N. role should be expanded, if for no other reason than that might persuade others, including NATO, to offer formal on-the-ground assistance, is gaining ground, say administration sources, but there is no acceptance on anyceding of overall authority to the world body. At the moment, the Security Council remains at loggerheads once again.

Whether NATO or other nations will be ready to share the military burden remains in doubt, however. While the security situation deteriorates, an alarmed Japan is rethinking its plans to send troops. And there is little evidence to suggest that the violence isn’t going to worsen — that is while the occupying authorities continue to misread what they are facing.

Pentagon officials have been quick to blame al Qaeda or Arab volunteers from neighboring countries for the violence. That explanation, of course, fits well into the Bush administration’s “war on global terror,” but falls far short of understanding the complexity of what is happening on the ground in Iraq.

And it doesn’t help to decipher the day-to-day low-intensity violence that is threatening to stray beyond Baghdad and Sunni towns to the east and northwest of the capital, where most of it has been focused. According to a detailed analysis to be released today by the respected Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), the sources of the violence are diverse. ICG says the main anti-occupation groups currently consist of Ba’athist loyalists; nationalists; Sunni Islamists; tribal members affronted by American and British violation of basic customs; and Arab volunteers.

Feeding much of the anti-occupation violence is the general despair Iraqis feel with the lack of material well-being and, ironically, safety. ICG argues that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is squandering the relief felt widely in the country at the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his odious regime.

According to ICG, most Iraqis until now have disapproved of the violence against the occupation. While harboring ambiguity about the foreign military presence on their soil, the majority has been willing to give the CPA the benefit of the doubt. But for that to continue, the occupying authorities must deliver much more quickly on the things that matter for ordinary Iraqis — namely, establishing law and order, creating employment, and restoring basic utilities and services like electricity, clean water and fuel.

Ominously, ICG warns that while the tipping point against the occupation has not yet been reached, it is looming. The principal political divide is shifting gradually from one separating supporters and opponents of the ousted Ba’athist regime to one pitching those supportive of the occupying forces against those determined to undermine them.

The failure to deliver more speedily on the basic needs of Iraqis risks adding to feelings of resentment and wounded national pride and is likely to lead to Iraqis questioning even more the political transition process. And it could result disastrously in the distinctions fading between the various anti-occupation groups, warns ICG.

That indeed is a nightmare scenario. Any kind of broad alliance between anti-occupation groups would present the CPA with a huge security challenge.

What’s to be done? The attempt to put an Iraqi face on the occupation is failing, according to ICG, which accuses the CPA of stacking the new Interim Governing Council with too many Pentagon-favored exiles who hold little sway in Iraq.

The result has been to suck legitimacy away from the council. That in turn is undermining the credibility of the CPA, which is seen by most Iraqis as remote and unheeding.

Arguing that “it is not realistic to expect the CPA to be capable by itself of adequately caring for the population’s essential needs and successfully ruling Iraq,” ICG recommends a new “three-way division of real governing responsibility between the CPA, the Interim Governing Council and the United Nations.”

Granting the United Nations a greater role in the political transition, and devolving more power to a governing council that is more representative, could overcome the reluctance of other countries to help and strengthen the legitimacy of political change in the eyes of Iraqis. Under the ICG plan, the CPA would continue to have the primary security responsibility, with allied forces in Iraq being transformed into a U.S.-led multinational force.

Hardliners in the Bush administration may want this to be a “U.S. show.” But, unless they are careful, it could become an American quagmire.

Jamie Dettmer is a senior editor at Insight Magazine.

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