Iraq faces profound shift of power

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq in 2005 faces the likelihood of the most profound shift of political power in its modern history, while struggling with an insurgency that has confounded U.S. strategists and their optimistic forecasts that preceded the war.

Starting with national elections on Jan. 30, Iraqis are supposed to go to the polls three times next year – first to choose a new parliament, then to decide on a new constitution and finally – if the charter is ratified – to choose yet another legislature by the end of the year.

The January ballot will be the first since the April 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And the vote in December will complete the steps envisioned by the Bush Administration to transform Iraq from one of the Middle East’s most ruthless dictatorships into a functioning, albeit flawed, democracy.

That’s a tall order for a nation of nearly 26 million people, a volatile Sunni-Shiite divide and large areas that are virtual no-go zones for Westerners, government officials and the country’s own security forces.

If the plan works, the United States may be able to see a time when it can bring home substantial numbers of U.S. troops.

However, few of the optimistic predictions about Iraq – from jubilant Iraqis showering invading troops with flowers, to the vast oil revenues paying for the country’s own reconstruction, to Iraqis taking charge of their own security -have come true.

Instead, Iraq, already America’s bloodiest military operation since the Vietnam war, is awash not only in the wreckage of failed forecasts but also in tons of missing Iraqi weapons and ammunition feared to have fallen into the hands of insurgents.

This time last year, some American planners envisioned U.S. troops fading into the background while Iraqi police and soldiers dealt with the guerrillas. Last month, U.S. troops were locked in their most intense urban combat – for the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah – since Vietnam.

Instead of cutbacks, the Pentagon is boosting U.S. force levels to about 150,000 by mid-January – more U.S. troops than invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Petroleum exports have lagged due to poor infrastructure, sabotage and a security situation which makes large-scale renovation projects too dangerous. The world’s most powerful military has been unable to stop suicide bombings on the 10 miles (16 kilometers) of highway from the center of Baghdad to the airport – much less protect the oil wells and the thousands of miles (kilometers) of pipelines.

If elections do take place, they are expected to shift power to the long-suppressed Shiite Muslim community, an estimated 60 percent of the population. That would spell the end of Sunni domination which predates the establishment of the modern Iraqi state after World War I.

Iraq would become the only Arab land with a Shiite-dominated government -an unnerving prospect for Arab countries with large and potentially restive Shiite populations. Only non-Arab Iran is currently under Shiite rule. Some urban, Westernized Iraqis shudder at the prospect of Tehran-style clerical rule, although key Shiite politicians dismiss those concerns as unfounded.

Nevertheless, it will take considerable political skill for Iraq’s leaders to maneuver through a tectonic power shift without inflaming sectarian and ethnic passions among Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and others who make up this country’s mosaic.

Sunni Arabs already form the core of the insurgency – much of it believed to be from the old network of Saddam’s Baath party. If the Sunnis feel deprived of a meaningful role in the new Iraq, rebel ranks will swell.

The Kurds, estimated between 14 and 20 percent of the population and the most pro-American group, are anxious to maintain the self-rule they have enjoyed in the north since 1991. If they feel threatened, or if the new constitution strips them of self-rule, the Kurds may push for independence, arguing that Washington owes them that for providing militiamen to fight alongside U.S. troops in the 2003 invasion.

But the dismemberment of Iraq would alarm not only every country in the region but the Europeans and the Americans as well.

More worrisome would be the response of the Sunni Arab minority the political and social elite under Saddam, concentrated in the center and north. Sunnis were also the backbone of Saddam’s Republican Guard and security services, which went underground following the collapse of the regime, forging alliances with foreign and Iraqi Islamic extremists.

The Sunnis are divided between those who have opted to participate in politics, such as Iraq’s interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, and elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, and those who reject anything that smacks of cooperation with an American force they regard as occupiers.

Among the rejectionists is an alliance of about 3,000 Sunni clerics – the Association of Muslim Scholars. They have called for a boycott of elections to protest both the attack on Fallujah and the continued U.S. presence. The challenges facing Iraq will be to draw them into the political process, perhaps through power-sharing formulas or guarantees of Sunni status to lure them away from Islamic extremists.

Meanwhile, steps to prosecute Saddam were slowed after the government fired the director of the war crimes tribunal, Salem Chalabi, and the Iraqi leader is unlikely to stand trial before a fully constitutional government is in place at the end of 2005.

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