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Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004

Bleak hopes for democracy

LONDON -- The U.N. secretary general recently reaffirmed that the war in Iraq was illegal in the absence of a second U.N. resolution. Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted at the Labour Party Conference that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and that the intelligence alleging the existence of such weapons was wrong.

Moreover, leaked papers, covering advice given to Blair from the foreign secretary and senior diplomats before the invasion was launched, show that there were strong doubts among British diplomats about the future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein was removed.

They noted that there was no tradition of democracy in Iraq and expressed concern about the inadequacies of American planning for government in Iraq after the attack was concluded. The validity of this advice has been more than confirmed by the way affairs in Iraq have gone since U.S. President George W. Bush's triumphalist declaration 1 1/2 years ago that the war was basically over.

Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary who resigned over British support for the invasion of Iraq, noted on Sept. 19: "We were told that the conquest of Iraq was a victory against terror. It now seems like a spectacular own goal . . . There were no international terrorists in Iraq until we went in. It was we who provided the perfect conditions in which al-Qaeda could thrive."

Whether we endorse these views or not we have to deal with the situation as it is now. Blair, following a meeting in London with Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, admitted Sept. 19 that "Britain was back in a state of war in Iraq," but he called on the international community to come together behind what is happening in Iraq and realize that the struggle in Iraq was for "liberty, democracy and stability."

Allawi, Bush and Blair still seem determined that elections will go ahead in Iraq in January even if they cannot be held in some parts of the country controlled by insurgents. The United Nations has expressed doubts about whether free and fair elections in the country will in fact be feasible, and partial elections seem unlikely to give democratic credibility to the regime that will emerge after elections. Since the current Iraqi regime, possibly unfairly, is seen by many Iraqis as composed of American puppets, it will be very difficult for any future regime elected or chosen while foreign forces remain in Iraq to assert its independence.

Media reports from Baghdad give a very depressing account of the lack of security in the country. Suicide bombings take place almost every day, and casualties, especially among Iraqis wanting to join the security forces, continue to mount. During the first two weeks of September, it is estimated that 291 Iraqi civilians were killed and that the average number of attacks on U.S. soldiers reached 87 a day.

Kidnappings, whether for ransom or to achieve political ends, are so common that only a few of the more high-profile cases are reported. The kidnappers do not seem to care whether those kidnapped are from countries that have been active participants in the war, neutral countries or countries whose governments opposed the war. The objective seems to be to cause maximum chaos. Meanwhile, efforts to restore Iraq's infrastructure and oil exports, needed to help pay for reconstruction, are thwarted as the sufferings of ordinary Iraqis worsen.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities have apparently lost control of large areas, including the Sunni triangle around Fallujah. Najaf, a Shiite center, is a "no-go" area for U.S. forces. When the Americans and the Iraqi police attempt to enter Sadr City in Baghdad, they meet fierce resistance. Attacks by U.S. forces with aircraft and helicopter gunships on "rebel" strongholds, as in Fallujah, seem to have limited success.

The civilian casualties, including those of women and children, that these attacks cause increase hostility toward the allied forces and the Iraqi administration. While American fatalities continue to climb well above the 1,000 mark, the number of Iraqi deaths and injuries is certainly more than 10 times that of allied casualties. Some U.S. and British leaders nevertheless still try to argue that the security situation overall is getting better. While casualties continue to mount, it will be difficult to persuade opinion in Britain, at least, that they are right.

There is now a real danger of civil war in Iraq. The Shiite majority will never again accept subjugation by the Sunni minority, and the latter will be equally reluctant to accept a lesser role in a future Iraq than they had under Hussein. The Kurdish minority in northern Iraq is also determined to assert increasing independence from Baghdad. The final result could be a divided Iraq, but Sunni and Shiite populations cannot be easily separated into different contiguous areas. Massacres could occur during the process of separation -- in which case al-Qaeda would be the only real winner.

Prospects for democracy in Iraq thus look increasingly bleak with civil war probable. If civil war occurs, other countries in the Middle East may be tempted or feel forced to intervene, and the threat to world peace will grow.

Clearly whatever our views on the way in which the Iraqi problem has been mishandled, we need to think carefully about what can be done to help restore security. Countries that opposed the war in the first place would be more likely to help if the U.S. president admitted that serious errors had been made by his government. But it is unrealistic to think that Bush will ever admit to making errors, least of all during an election campaign.

The United States could, however, help by recognizing that military force alone will not provide a solution and that the military must behave with greater sensitivity in minimizing civilian casualties that its future actions may cause.

The Iraqi authorities for their part must also show greater willingness to talk to opponents, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, however much they may dislike and distrust their opponents. Islamic authorities throughout the world can also help by making clear their strong opposition to terrorism. This might take the form of clerics issuing fatwas against any Muslim committing terrorist acts.

The creation of an Iraqi government that will be accepted as legitimate by the people depends on the holding of elections that are viewed as fair. This in turn depends on achieving a much higher degree of security than exists at present.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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