- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Sunday’s powerful truck bomb blast in Baghdad that killed about 23 people, including two people working for U.S. contractors, and injured more than 70 others, serves as a grim reminder of the precarious situation in Iraq.

The blast, about 8 a.m. Sunday at the coalition headquarters’ very front gate, comes as L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, heads to the United Nations, hoping to convince the world body to return to Iraq and help the United States establish a feasible exit strategy from what is turning out to be a complicated political imbroglio.

Sunday’s attack came one day after Washington announced its intentions to reduce U.S. military presence in the country from 130,000 to 105,000 soldiers, redeploying mostly outside the cities, where American GIs would be less at risk from such terror attacks. The U.S. military marked a grim milestone Saturday, with the deaths of three soldiers that put the U.S. casualty toll in Iraq at 500.

Mr. Bremer hopes to recruit U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s help in convincing Iraq’s leading Shi’ite authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to defer a call for a nationwide direct election. Last week, the Ayatollah Sistani threatened mass protests and strikes if the U.S. occupation does not agree to direct suffrage.

“We are going to see protests and strikes and perhaps a confrontation with the occupying force if it insists on … designing the country’s politics for its own interests,” declared Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai, the Ayatollah Sistani’s representative in the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, as tens of thousands of Shi’ites demonstrated in the southern port city of Basra last Thursday.

Washington’s argument is that it is technically impossible to properly organize coherent and fair elections between now and June, seeing Iraq has no existing polling capabilities and no electoral registers.

The United Nations largely agrees with the U.S. assessment of the situation. And Washington, which earlier shunned the United Nations when it unilaterally launched the invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power, now seeks its support.

Both the United States and the United Nations fear generalized elections in Iraq would result in a Shi’ite-dominated government under which other leading minorities in the country — such as the Kurds, Turkmen and the Sunnis — would suffer. The result could be disastrous — possibly civil strife between the various communities already eyeing each other suspiciously.

But differences in timing of the elections even exist between the U.S. and the U.N., with the Bush administration — looking toward the November presidential elections — in a rush to internationalize the Iraqi conflict to diminish the U.S. role. The U.N. is adopting a more pragmatic approach.

Washington’s urgency is understandable. Images of dying U.S. soldiers are not likely to boost President Bush’s standing. And neither will those of Iraqi women and children among the dead and injured Sunday.

The suicide truck bomber, who detonated a half-ton of explosives near the U.S.-led coalition’s Baghdad headquarters, is reminiscent of the October 1983 suicide truck bombing against the U.S. Marines headquarters at Beirut Airport that killed 241 U.S. servicemen, eventually forcing the Reagan administration to shift policy and withdraw from Lebanon.

But Mr. Bremer stressed the United States would not be deterred. “Our determination to work for a stable and democratic future for this country is undiminished. Our plan to hand over remaining authority to a new Iraqi government in July this year remains unchanged,” said Mr. Bremer.

Mr. Bremer, in with administration officials in Washington about the Iraq situation, condemned Sunday’s bombing.

Mr. Bremer mourned the “innocent victims” while reaffirming the U.S. intention to hand over authority to Iraqis later this year. In a statement posted Sunday on the coalition’s Web site, Mr. Bremer said: “Today’s terrorist bombing in Baghdad … is an outrage — another clear indication of the murderous and cynical intent of terrorists to undermine freedom, democracy and progress in Iraq. They will not succeed. The attack, which took place at the height of rush hour in Baghdad, was clearly timed to claim the maximum possible number of innocent victims. Once again, it is innocent Iraqis who have been murdered by these terrorists in a senseless act of violence.”

Iraq’s interim Governing Council vowed to “strike with an iron fist” against terrorism. Council spokesman Hameed Kafai described the attack in front of the U.S. command headquarters as “another shameful stain in the face of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his supporters.”

Mr. Kafai did not rule out the possibility the al Qaeda network planned the attack. “There is no doubt of coordination and alliance between the terrorists inside and outside,” he said.

Mr. Kafai described the attack as “criminal” and insisted such attacks in Iraq “will not prevent us from pursuing a democratic system and establishing a free, democratic and plural state.”

The question remains whether this will be achieved at the pace and timetable preferred by the U.S. or the Iraqis.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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