- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2004

While the United States engages in its favorite pastime — obsessing over past wrongdoings — it is, as usual, taking its eye off the real problem, which is the future.

Iraq, for whatever reason, has been invaded. Over 100,000 troops are deployed there. Withdrawal at this moment is not an option. All of this is over and done with and, like it or not, is a reality this country has to deal with. The problem is the future — and not a very distant future at that.

On June 30, a new Iraqi constitution takes effect and the United States will hand over sovereignty to a government created under that constitution. It will not be a democratically elected government, since elections are not likely to happen before 2005. However, it will be a representative government, if by representative you mean that most of the factions in this fractured government will be represented, more or less, proportionately. And that’s where the fun begins.

Technically speaking, this government will have sovereign rights over its own country. It could, if it wanted, order the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The United States could refuse the demand but would then be in the bizarre position of undermining the sovereignty of a government it just invented.

The United States has always figured it would avoid this problem by making arrangements with the key group that will dominate this government — the Shi’ites. Iraq is divided into three major ethnic and religious groups: Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd.

The United States basically cut a deal with the Shi’ites — and their Iranian sponsors — back in September, when the guerrilla war being carried out by the Sunnis appeared to be completely out of hand. Had the Shi’ites joined the insurrection, the U.S. position would have become untenable. The United States convinced the Shi’ites not to rise, but there was a price: recognition of Shi’ite domination of Iraq.

It seemed to be a win-win-win situation. The United States bought peace in the area south of Baghdad where the Shi’ites dominate; the Shi’ites won domination of any future Iraqi government; and the Iranians got a Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, which they felt would secure their western flank against their historical enemy. The losers were the Sunnis in Iraq, and the Saudi government, which now faces its worst nightmare — cooperation between its Iranian enemy and the United States.

That’s the problem: It was a very sweet deal. Having gotten what it wanted, the United States began thinking maybe the price it was paying was too high. The Shi’ites sensed this and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, leader of the Iraqi Shi’ites, began increasing pressure. His demand for early elections was not really about elections but rather a demand the U.S. lock in a Shi’ite-dominated government and lock out the Sunnis.

Ayatollah Sistani has an ace in the hole. He can let the transfer go forward and have the Shi’ite-dominated government demand withdrawal of all or part of the U.S. troops. The U.S. figures he won’t do that, because it will leave him facing the Sunnis alone. The ayatollah may figure it differently.

First, he may feel the Shi’ite militias are strong enough now to face and beat the Sunnis, without U.S. help, especially if the Iranians lend a hand — which they will. Second, the Shi’ites may think the U.S. has been too cute by half.

The U.S. is courting the Sunni leadership after the Shi’ites thought they had locked in a deal of their own. American buyers’ remorse over the deal cut with the Shi’ites has found the U.S. nibbling on the edges of the deal, trying to sort of redefine it. The Ayatollah Sistani may be thinking a new doublecross by the Americans could be in the offing.

That brings us to a major crisis that will make the current soap opera in Washington pale into insignificance. What happens if, after June 30, the new internationally recognized government of Iraq thanks the United States for overthrowing Saddam, gives the U.S. commander a lovely gold watch and tells the Americans to go home?

Not only will the administration have invaded Iraq without being able to coherently explain its reasoning, but the result would be an Iranian-dominated, Shi’ite government in Iraq.

The U.S. would then have two choices. One would be to leave, with everyone asking what was the point of the exercise. The other would be to stay and face a conflict with the government it created. The future is much more interesting than the past.

George Friedman is chairman of Strategic Forecasting Inc. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.

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