The best-educated Sunnis and Christians of the Baghdad elite may admire democracy in theory but fiercely oppose it in practice because they do not want to be ruled by the Shiite majority, and still less by the emerging Kurdish-Shiite alliance.
A majority of Shiites are illiterate or almost so, and the only leaders they recognize are their imams and ayatollahs. Some of them are loud political activists, while others strive to stay out of politics. All, however, insist that Iraq must be governed by Islamic law, not by the will of an elected assembly that might violate religion as they see it by legislating equal rights for women, freedom of speech or the right to drink alcohol, among other sins.
In other words, the most likely leaders of a majority of Iraqis reject as a matter of firm religious principle the very idea of inalienable human rights, the fundamental premise of any worthwhile democracy.
The Shiite clerics of Basra are already using their new freedom to deprive others of theirs, forcing the closure of liquor stores, a trade of the local Christian minority.
As for the Kurds, our good allies who account for about 15% of Iraq's population, they certainly know more than most about the evils of dictatorship, but their own governance is much more tribal than democratic. That is why the Kurdish enclave is divided into two distinct and occasionally warring mini-states, led by the Barazanis and Talabani clans.
The smaller minorities -- Turkmen, Assyrians and Yazidis, about 5% of Iraq's population in all -- share the concerns of the Baghdad elite. They do not want to be governed by the most likely winners of any free election: Shiite clerics who vary only in the degree of their fanaticism.
Finally, there are the Sunnis of central and northern Iraq who enjoyed privileged access to relatively well-paid and mostly undemanding jobs under Saddam Hussein.
Coming from a still partly tribal culture of modest accomplishments and unlimited pride, few Sunnis know anything at all about democracy except that it will not reserve 90% of easy government jobs for less than 20% of the population. Besides, many of those jobs have disappeared now.
It would be an astonishing achievement of cultural transformation if a functioning Iraqi democracy could be established in a mere 30 years, or even 60. The Bush administration cannot, of course, contemplate decades of colonial government. It is therefore pushing for rapid progress toward the formation of an elected government after a constitution, duly publicized across the country and approved by national referendum, is written by the Iraqi governing council. Although the new government is to have a very small army, along with police forces respectful of civil rights, it better be heavily armed all the same, for so are millions of Iraqis fiercely opposed to majority rule.
But even that perilously accelerated timetable is much too slow for many Iraqis and for U.S. forces. It is not that the troops are frightened by the sporadic attacks against them -- total casualties remain too small for that -- but that most are disgusted by the futility of their duties.
They are repairing schools in the furnace heat of the Mesopotamian summer while able-bodied Iraqis nearby are idly watching, if not jeering. They are clearing playgrounds for children who have been taught to throw stones at them. They are guarding hospitals from looters while being cursed even by the visitors of the patients they are protecting.
The officers who now govern towns, city quarters and entire districts are constantly besieged by local leaders and imams demanding more of everything, from electricity to well-paid jobs, but who resist any suggestion that they themselves could act, for example, by leading their followers in badly needed cleanups of garbage-strewn streets. They prefer to keep them listening to their speeches and sermons for hours.
It is therefore not just the successive delays in rotating forces home that are ruining morale but the mission impossible of turning Iraqis into democrats in short order.
Now that hopes of recruiting large numbers of peacekeepers from other countries have faded, the time has come to prepare the next-best exit strategy.
If equipped with an adequate security force, there is no reason why the governing council cannot be left to rule on its own. And such a force could be formed quickly out of existing Kurdish and Shiite militias upgraded with training and more vehicles, and rounded off with police forces raised in Sunni areas and stabilized by small U.S. air-ground garrisons kept out of sight in remote desert bases.
The geographic separation of Kurdish and Shiite militias should minimize frictions between them as they secure the government's control over the territory while a new national army is being formed.
The perils of a rapid exit are many, starting with the inability of the governing council to agree on anything of substance. Its first order of business was to select a president, who wasn't to be an executive in any way. He was to be merely someone to organize the proceedings. That proved impossible, so a weak compromise was found in a rotating nine-man presidency.
Obviously, there are many hurdles ahead. Because it would take decades, and not just years, to change any of the underlying obstacles to Iraq's democratic governance, a prolonged occupation would come at great cost yet offer no greater guarantees of success than a rapid transfer of power to the governing council.
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