- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

An optimist in the Middle East is someone who is almost always wrong while a pessimist is usually an optimist with experience. And those who live by the crystal ball in Araby usually wind up eating crunched glass.

With those caveats, one can probably dismiss the voices from the left that say it was an election to anoint an occupation. One can also safely discount the Bush cheerleaders who are confident the Iraqi elections symbolize the strategic defeat of terrorism in Iraq.

But it was a major triumph for Iran. For the first time since the revolutionary ayatollahs imposed their clerical dictatorship on Persia in 1979, their Shi’ite coreligionists scored a legal majority of the votes in another country — and a neighbor at that. Mercifully, Iraq’s Shi’ites, headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, were not interested in emulating Iran’s theocracy. They made clear they wanted majority rule government sans turbans.

Their favorite candidate for prime minister is Ahmad Chalabi, originally sponsored by neocon supremo Richard Perle, and once the Pentagon’s darling and the CIA’s bete noir, who has spent the past few months cultivating new contacts with turbans in Iran and obtaining Ali Sistani’s benediction for high office.

Mr. Chalabi’s elevation would cause immediate embarrassment in Jordan, Iraq’s immediate neighbor to the west, where he was sentenced in absentia in 1992 to 22 years hard labor on 31 counts of embezzlement and bank fraud. Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose country heavily depends on trade with Iraq, would probably have to grant a royal pardon.

The election was one small step for democracy — and a giant step into unknown territory. No traffic was allowed to move and major cities looked like ghost towns. With 19,000 candidates and 111 parties and formations, the ballots were so complex even Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader, needed a briefing on what to do. The United Iraqi Alliance apologized for identifying only 37 of their 225 candidates “because we have to keep them alive.” A similar election held in Syria would have been dismissed as sham.

The attribution of 275 seats in the transitional Constituent Assembly, the selection of a president and two vice presidents, and then a prime minister, who would have to form a government, followed by a referendum on a new constitution in mid-August, followed by general elections by year’s end — all so many sandtraps where scorpions lie in wait.

Before the elections, Iraq’s new head of intelligence estimated the number of “fulltime” insurgents at 40,000 and part-time fighters at 160,000. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the army numbered 430,000.

Last year, Central Commander Gen. John Abizaid put the number of terrorists at about 5,000. Other generals have gone as high as 20,000. The only number that matters is 300. That was the total number of IRA terrorists deployed in Northern Ireland at the height of the insurgency. But they kept half the British Army deployed against them for a quarter-century.

When the United States liberated Baghdad, some 650,000 tons of weapons and ammo was abandoned in storage areas throughout the country. There were not enough U.S. troops to guard them all. And the army capacity to destroy them was limited to 150 tons a day. The insurgents had plenty of time to rearm from unguarded depots, many of them underground.

Sunni Iraq, or four of the 18 provinces with almost half the population, has, in effect, excluded itself from the democratic process. The Kurds in the north already enjoy semi-autonomous government and almost half the country’s oil reserves.

The Shi’ites in the south, with 60 percent of the population, can have whatever status they demand — and their own oil. Unless generously treated by both Kurds (who are also Sunni Muslims) and Shi’ites, the Sunnis, with 20 percent of the population, will be in a permanent state of rebellion.

A Shi’ite-dominated Iraq will ring alarm bells in countries with substantial Shi’ite minorities, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and in countries with Shi’ite majorities like Bahrain (where a Sunni royal family is in charge) and Lebanon (where they share power with Maronite Christians). Jordan, Syria and the six Gulf countries are bound to feel threatened by a Shi’ite resurgency and may well be tempted to secretly help the Iraqi insurgency.

For the average Iraqi, freedom to vote for some 19,000 candidates in 111 political parties and formations was heady stuff after several decades of always voting yes for Saddam (a “no” or blank ballot meant a one-way trip to jail and worse).

But the reality is less gasoline, electricity and potable water than during Saddam’s absolute dictatorship that was also under international sanctions. Insurgents wait for oil pipelines to be repaired before hitting them again and oil exports are a long way from paying for reconstruction. Drivers wait 12 hours in line to get their gasoline tanks filled.

Some 300,000 Iraqi Sunnis are still refugees in their own country, most of them from Fallujah, the town that had to be partly destroyed to flush out insurgents who had taken it over.

Nothing will disabuse Arab opinion of the idee fixe that President Bush ordered Operation Iraqi Freedom to secure the country’s oil and Israel’s interests. The original white paper written for Israeli leaders in 1996 by Richard Perle and fellow neoconservative Douglas Feith, who resigned last week as defense undersecretary, is quoted time and again by Arab leaders and intellectuals. The plan — majestic in its simplicity — was to surround Israel with Arab democracies. The subtext: Democracies do not go to war against each other.

Iraq was selected by the neocons to be the first test case. Iraq now becoming a democracy remains a long shot.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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