- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The task of U.N. special envoyLakhdar Brahimi — forming a new government to lead Iraq toward democracy and stability — will become increasingly difficult until two challenges are overcome: restoring U.S. credibility in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and preventing extremists from exploiting the recent violence for their own political gain.

With the clock ticking fast toward the June 30 transfer of sovereignty, the looming danger is that U.S. actions may be strengthening anti-democratic elements in the country. If this continues, the prospect of forming a moderate, liberal-mindedgovernment grows ever more remote.

The Abu Ghraib scandal requires a political resolution. Those U.S. politicians in charge should stand tall and take responsibility for the actions of the soldiers under their command. This will be the first major lesson of democracy in action for the Iraqi people, illustrating that those in power are accountable for their actions — or inaction, in this case.

In addition to arming Iraqi democrats with a tough example of U.S. commitment to egalitarian processes, a political resignation will show the people of Iraq — and the regional autocracies who so delight in pointing the finger despite their own horrendous human-rights record — that the United States is committed to transparency and the rule of law, even as it acts as an occupying power.

It will send a message that Iraqis can and should aspire to democracy, wherein a free press feels confident to uncover and expose abuses of power and politicians take responsibility for their actions and for those under them.

In the confrontation with the radical Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is using mediators who are only slightly less radical than Mr. Sadr and who have strong ties to Iran. This is a dangerous game that could well strengthen the hand of Iran and its Iraqi proxies to the detriment of the Iraqi democrats.

When the confrontation with Mr. Sadr started, it would have played better on the Iraqi streets — and would have isolated the cleric — had Iraqis been at the forefront of the battle rather than passive observers until the CPA turned desperate and accepted the mediation offers of hard-line Islamist groups and individuals.

By allowing these elements to play a “peace-making” role, the political waters are muddied as the United States elevates these players to the status of legitimate political representatives.

The danger in all this is that the United States and the international community will allow a prominent role for these “less radical” but still autocratically minded elements in the caretaker government as an alternative to the most extremist groups, like that of Mr. Sadr and the Fallujah terrorists.

In the April hostage crisis, for example, the Board of Muslim Clergy, who interestingly seemed to know exactly with whom to negotiate, came out on top looking like peacemakers. These are the same people whose Friday sermons spew the most violent anti-U.S. clap-trap; some urge jihad against the United States and pray for the victory of the “resistance.”

Despite the Abu Ghraib abominations, the interest of the Iraqi people lies in a strategic political alliance with the United States, not with Iran and other neighbors. By allowing the proxies of these countries to play a prominent “peace-making” role, the United States specifically is strengthening the position of those who do not want to see an ally of the United States on their borders.

In addition, as every recent Iraqi opinion poll illustrates, the majority of Iraqis want a democratic system; they reject both theocracy and autocracy.

Liberals, independents and democratically minded elements of Iraqi society argue that direct U.S. negotiations with radical elements like Mr. Sadr and the Fallujah terrorists would be more effective. Or, at least, the CPA should talk to them through independent, respected local intermediaries who are not proxies of the neighbors and who do not have their own political agendas. Such people do exist in Iraq.

The United States needs to communicate to these radical elements that their use of violence and intimidation against their own compatriots will get them nowhere. At the same time, the CPA must communicate that it is willing to open direct talks with Mr. Sadr and the Fallujah terrorists while expressing the willingness to continue using U.S. military might against them.

This offer of diplomacy backed by the threat of force eventually will bring them to the negotiating table and will expose their empty rhetoric and their crimes against the people of Iraq.

If the United States thus removes the “middle men” from the negotiating process and courageously tackles the Abu Ghraib scandal, the regional powers and their Iraqi proxies will be disempowered and will not be able to exploit the violence for political gain.

Then, moderate and democratic forces, who believe in a strategic partnership with the United States, may become an essential part of a democratic transition.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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