- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The capture of Saddam Hussein certainly makes for a happier Christmas in the White House and in Iraq, too. As we know, the Bush administration’s purposes in going to war in Iraq were to end Saddam’s regime, strike a major blow against terror, eliminate the potential danger of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and democratize the country. The first of those aims is now a “mission accomplished.”

The war on terror is still on. As to the veracity of the WMD threat, time will tell. And Iraq is far from democratic. This being Christmas Eve, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and a visit from his three Christmas spirits offer both a retro and a future perspective on where we are and what might lie ahead.

About the last year, the spirits of Christmas past and present would bear good and bad news. The war went splendidly. However, the reasons for urgency in going to war — Saddam’s threat through ties with terrorists and WMD — have yet to be proven.

A very bad man is in custody. But the peace has not gone so well. Until the disheveled and defeated image of Saddam flashed round the world, media stories out of Iraq, to the unhappiness of the administration, concentrated on problems and not progress. The insurgency intensified and American officials in Iraq admitted that security would not automatically improve even with Saddam under arrest.

Before the war, the administration believed that the postwar task of turning Iraq into a democratic state would proceed relatively smoothly. Progress, hindered by the insurgency, has been far slower than the administration planned and Iraqi patience may demand. And therearetwopotential firestorms that loom. One is the possibility of the insurgency spreading to the Shia and the Kurds. The second and more ominous is the broader political and religious forces in opposition to forming a democraticgovernment. These have been obscured by the violence in the so-called Sunni triangle around Baghdad.

Being of English origin, Christmas future will have seen a BBC documentary due out later this month on the state of the postwar occupation in Iraq. Produced by BBC journalist Humphrey Hawksley, the program reports on the occupation from the eyes of more or less average Iraqis, many Mr. Hawksley met on a prior visit.

What is disturbing about the program is evidence of a budding Islamic republic in the Shia-dominated areas of southern Iraq. Women are back in traditional head-to-toe garb. Alcohol is proscribed, and several Iraqi violators of that ban were killed as examples to all for violating Islamic law. Furthermore, beyond concrete barriers to protect Westerners, there is little sign of reconstruction.

Local clerics are organizing grass-root political organizations. A senior cleric declared that a republic would be formed through elections or other means. “Other means” means force. If the documentary is accurate, neither the Coalition Provisional Authority nor the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad has much control over these Shia, who are loyal to their spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

If the administration changed its view, what could it be doing differently in Iraq? $18.7 billion has been appropriated for reconstructingIraqand Afghanistan. More than 130,000 U.S. forces, supported by some 60 other states, are in Iraq. We are told American forces will stay for at least two years. The counter-insurgency effort continues. And there is agreement on returning sovereignty to a new Iraqi government by next summer. While critics as well as democratic presidential aspirants have offered a lot of remedial advice, the administration is unconvinced that any will improve the situation.

Withdrawal is out of the question. So, too, ideas for turning the insurgency over to the Sunnis to handle and reduce U.S. forces engaged in that battle are unlikely to resonate. Despite all the carping and second-guessing, the fact of the matter is that the course in Iraq is set. The strategic dice have been rolled. Adjustments can be made depending upon whether conditions improve or deteriorate. But to the White House, it seems that there is little more that realistically can be done now to democratize and rebuild Iraq.

Iraq is not a metaphor for Dickens’ “Tiny Tim.” The spirit of Christmas future could foretell that Iraq will survive without radical surgery. Were major policy surgery needed, it is not obvious what that procedure would be. Regardless,inthecoming months, we will see whether the Bush administration’s actions and intentions proved a bridge too far in democratizing Iraq or an enduring structure over which to transport democracy into the greater Middle East. And, on that knowledge, the November presidential elections could turn.

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