- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Looking back, it’s hard to believe only a year has elapsed since American and British forces jumped into action to oust Saddam Hussein and uncover his weapons of mass destruction. At least the regime change was accomplished.

Regardless, much has transpired in the last 365 days. Iraq was invaded and occupied. Saddam was overthrown, and nine months later found and apprehended. Images of a disheveled despot looking haggard and scared must have left more than one dictator shaken and rethinking his future.

Aggressive de-Ba’athification was introduced to ferret out remaining supporters of the “ancien regime,” a new (temporary) constitution was adopted and the country is scheduled to reclaim self-rule on July 1, the first step toward full independence. But that will come only after stability returns. Until then, U.S. and other coalition troops will remain in cantonments at a number of strategically deployed bases.

To reduce casualties, the U.S. military intends to withdraw its troops from cities and towns, where they are harassed, attacked and killed. The troops will be repositioned to more secluded and secure bases, less vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Implementing that could be fraught with uncertainty.

Grouping masses of soldiers into delimited areas can have catastrophic effects. That is what the Marines in Beirut were forced to do in 1983, when — following continuous mortar and sniper attacks from Shi’ite and Druze militias — they regrouped in the Battalion Landing Team building by Beirut International Airport. The BLT building became the target of a suicide bomber who killed 241 servicemen, the greatest loss of Marines in a single day since the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. That’s a mistake the Pentagon will not wish to repeat.

Meanwhile, all is far from rosy in post-Saddam Mesopotamia.

In the last year, pictures of more than 550 American servicemen and women killed in Iraq and the 2,700 or so wounded, have been published in newspapers across America. Many of those casualties occurred after President George W. Bush declared the end of major hostilities last May 1.

These hostilities, though not classified as “major,” continue claiming lives every day. Countless more Iraqis have lost their lives. Many thousands of these will remain anonymous to the international media — well, because they are Iraqis, that’s all. Even in death, there seems to be preferential treatment.

Meanwhile, specters of Saddam’s undiscovered weapons of mass destruction continue haunting the Bush administration and the Blair government in Britain. Those specters have already claimed one victim — Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar and Popular Party, who lost the recent elections to the Socialists.

For Mr. Bush this is particularly bad in an election year, although lately the issue seems to have mostly receded. But with the November presidential elections heating up now that it seems certain Sen. John Kerry — barring an unforeseeable reversal — will win the Democratic nomination, look for the WMD topic to re-enter the daily political discussions.

Tony Blair’s problems at the moment appear greater than the tale spun by No. 10 Downing St. that Saddam could activate his WMD in 45 minutes. But that’s another story.

Saddam and the vast majority of his wicked henchmen were neutralized. But terrorism has reared its ugly head and is proliferating, claiming hundreds of victims — including about 17 killed in the car bombing of a Baghdad hotel Wednesday.

In the last year, Iraq has become a sort of giant magnet, attracting all kinds of extremists opposed to the United States. What Afghanistan was for the anti-Soviet mujaheedin in the 1970s, Iraq has now become for the anti-American jihadi.

Yet far more worrisome is that the stability the administration promised the invasion would produce remains far off. We were told democracy would self-propagate to the rest of the turbulent Middle East. So far, this has not materialized. Instead, it seems the opposite is occurring. In fact, Iraq has never been closer to civil war as it is a year after Saddam’s fall.

“It’s a very fragile entity,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, Cato Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies. “If the trends don’t change, it could be a big problem. Iraq is truly a vulnerable county that could turn into an Arab Yugoslavia.”

The horrendous March 2 terrorist attacks — on Ashoura, the holiest Shi’ite holiest day, killing about 150 people — was a harbinger of what may yet transpire in Iraq. If the Shi’ite community, which was badly shaken by this and previous terrorist attacks, has not yet retaliated, it is largely thanks to the mindset of one man: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The Iranian-born cleric, who angered the U.S. administration in Iraq by calling for direct elections prior to the July 1 target date for self-rule, has been instrumental in keeping the Shi’ite community in check. Iraq’s Shi’ites are about 60 percent of the population and could cause serious upheaval if unleashed.

“I find myself praying every night for the continued health of a nearly 80-year-old Iranian cleric who lives off an alleyway in the southern part of the country,” wrote Mitch Prothero, UPI’s correspondent in a recent dispatch from Baghdad.

It would a safe bet that our reporter is not the only one praying for the ayatollah’s wellbeing. Chances are Mr. Bush and U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer say the same prayers for Ayatollah Sistani, and for stability in Iraq too.

“We’ve got to keep Sistani alive,” said Clare Lopez, an intelligence analyst with Hawkeye Systems, a high-tech counterterrorism consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

With other such prominent Shi’ite leaders as the Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, who was killed last Aug. 29 in Najaf, disappearance of the Ayatollah Sistani would have grave consequences — at least until Iraq attains greater political maturity. But that won’t happen at the very least for another couple of years. Chances are by the second, third and even fourth anniversaries of the Iraq war, American troops will still be deployed in the country.

As deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli noted when Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders squabbled over the interim constitution, earlier in the month, “This is democracy at work.”

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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