Wednesday, March 1, 2006

When Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law Oct. 31, 1998, it paved the way for the March 2003 shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq. Some $300 billion later, including $10 billion in military hardware chewed up, the meter is still running.

The law of unintended consequences has sprung yet another unpleasant surprise. The kingmaker of Baghdad is now a sworn enemy of the United States who has pledged his support to Iran if the U.S. attempts regime change there, too.

Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led his Mehdi army militia not once but twice against U.S. forces in 2004, has emerged from the last round of elections with a crucial swing vote of 32 seats. His latest gambit was to threaten civil war unless his choice for prime minister was accepted. It was, by one vote.

That was how Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim prime minister, became Iraq’s next leader. The principal architect of the Iraq Liberation Act, Ahmad Chalabi, didn’t win a single seat in parliament; he got less than half of 1 percent of the vote. But the “gray eminence” of what went wrong may yet get a Cabinet job. A mathematics Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, his specialty is finance.

This was the same Mr. Jaafari, then interim prime minister, who last spring took 10 of his cabinet ministers to Tehran (where he lived in exile during the Saddam Hussein regime) to apologize for the eight-year Iran-Iraq war under Saddam. He returned to Baghdad with a $1 billion gift from the Iranian ayatollahs for new schools and hospitals.

The bombing of the Askariya Shi’ite shrine in Samarra, and the destruction of its golden dome, took Iraq to the brink of civil war. Shi’ites retaliated by attacking scores of Sunni mosques and more than 1,300 were killed in three days of sectarian bloodshed before the government decreed a curfew. Political and religious leaders on both sides quickly blamed the U.S. — and Iran, yet again, emerged the victor.

When President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the last thing he anticipated was an Islamist radical calling the shots in a democratic Iraq. A glutton for geopolitical punishment — which our enemies must see as congenital masochism — the administration and Congress are crab-walking into an “Iran Liberation Act.” The first tranche requested by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is for $75 million “to weaken Iran from within.”

This time it wasn’t an Iranian Chalabi type with dubious credentials, but several little Chalabis in the form of influential Christian lobby groups — and some of our born-again neocons determined to recover their Iraqi losses. Mercifully, Congress is looking askance at the project. And after testy exchanges with Miss Rice, the administration got what it wanted — plus $10 million already budgeted.

So far the administration’s magic potion for democracy in the Middle East has produced a majority for Hamas and its Islamist leadership, a sworn enemy of Israel and ally of Iran, in the Palestinian territories, and an alarming election sally by Egypt’s long banned Muslim Brotherhood, another sworn enemy of Israel and friend of Iran. Hezbollah, an adjunct of Iran in Lebanon, is also comfortably installed in the Beirut parliament.

Iran today has a dangerous, West-hating religious fanatic as president. But two recent unofficial Iranian emissaries were in Washington recently to advise Republicans and Democrats to be patient and to stay in lockstep with the European Union, Russia and China. If the U.S. breaks from a united international front, and goes the “Iraq Liberation Act” route in Iran, this will only assist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad widen a fairly narrow base of popular support. He can pose as Saladin against the heathen Americans and Zionist Jews, but he cannot take on the whole world — without antagonizing his clerical superiors. At least, that was the argument of the two low-key emissaries.

United international pressure against Iran’s nuclear program — and full support for the Russian compromise proposal whereby Moscow will enrich Iran’s nuclear fuel and return it short of weapons-grade uranium — will lead the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to unload the president. So argued the two Iranians who said, “If we weaponize nukes, others in the region will follow suit. So the non-weaponizers are now dominant but they also say they should have the capability of a full fuel enrichment cycle, just in case.”

Ayatollah Khamenei, known as rahbar, or leader, is elected for life by the 86-member “Assembly of Experts” who in turn are elected by the provinces and have a guardian, oversight role.

More important, the president has sharply limited executive powers. He doesn’t control the High Council of the Nation’s Security, the armed forces, the revolutionary guards, the intelligence services, the judiciary and broadcasting. All the important levers of power belong to rahbar.

Nor can the president dismiss parliament and call new elections. He is making “all sorts of wild promises,” the two Iranians told their American interlocutors, “and parliament is already asking him ‘who’s going to pay?’ ”

The Iranian president, who wants to wipe Israel off the map and scoffs at the Holocaust as fiction invented by the Jews, draws his principal support from the very poor — 5 million votes — and Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) veterans (about 1 million) who feel the supreme leader has deviated from the path set by his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1979-89).

The veterans, say the emissaries, share a deep distrust of any cooperation with the West because of the assistance given Saddam during his war with Iran. The U.S. supplied satellite intelligence of Iranian troop locations and the French sold military equipment, including 10,000 battlefield flares daily.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, the verbal bomb thrower, has already incurred the wrath of some senior ayatollahs by denouncing corruption. Everybody knows the former president, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, became one of Iran’s wealthiest men while in office.

Mr. Ahmadinejad defeated Ayatollah Rafsanjani last year. But what he lacks in clerical credentials, he makes up for in religious fanaticism.

While in Washington, the two Iranian emissaries also made clear that U.S. and/or Israeli attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities would set the whole region ablaze against the United States. “They have clandestine assets throughout the oil-producing countries of the Gulf,” one said, barely audibly. “And they also remember how you were forced to leave Vietnam in 1975.”

Iran’s Shi’ite friends in Iraq, led by fee-faw-fum scarecrow Mr. al-Sadr, will be asked to harass U.S. troops “as you prepare to end the occupation with honor.”

Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, said recently his country might come to regret its decision to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I’m not sure we won’t come to miss Saddam,” he told a group of students in a meeting broadcast on Israeli TV.

Sixty-three former heads of government, national security advisers and intelligence directors met for an off-the-record powwow in Monaco last weekend. There were disagreements, but the consensus was unequivocal: “Iraq is the biggest strategic blunder in 229 years of American history.” Last throes anyone?

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

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