Op-Ed

They Don’t Like Us

Shibley Telhami

The pattern was familiar: After bloody confrontations last week that left more than 40 Americans and hundreds of Iraqis dead, the blame in Washington focused on a single “outlaw” Iraqi Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. As the Bush administration portrayed it, Sadr was one of the only dark spots in an otherwise positive picture of an emerging prosperous and democratic Iraq.

This narrative—that a few rabble-rousers are obscuring the real progress being made—has taken many forms since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government a year ago. Convinced that Iraqis would see Americans as liberators, the Bush administration has consistently underestimated the extent of Iraqi opposition and the prevalent view of Americans as occupiers.

At first, the blame for violence rested with “remnants” of Saddam Hussein’s government, then with a few “Saddam loyalists” and “foreign terrorists,” later with the “Sunni triangle,” and then, Sunnis in general. When the fighting spread last week to Shiite areas, the administration said the problem was primarily one defiant man and his followers.

There is always an element of truth to the administration’s rendition of the Iraq story: In the current episode, Sadr is painted as a maverick with a relatively small following. And it is true that the young Shiite leader lacks theological seniority, has many enemies among the Shiites and does not have the backing of most of the clergy, especially most senior leaders. His prominence is mainly a legacy of his father, a highly revered Shiite cleric who stood up to Saddam and was killed in 1999.

But this version of the story misses the point. It is rarely the case in areas of conflict that those who engage in actual fighting are majorities; most are usually passive. Most of the time, life in Baghdad, Mosul or Basra appears perfectly normal, with people going about the business of earning food for their families. Until a bomb explodes, or a missile strikes. All it takes to incite violence is a few who are willing to plant a bomb.

3 central questions

To figure out if last week’s violence will spread out of control, the administration needs to ask more central questions than how many followers Sadr has right now: Are there determined groups willing to stand up to those who carry on with violent means? Are the majorities of the passive public wishing the militants well or ill? And are the ranks of those willing to fight shrinking or growing? The answers may be more troubling than the Bush administration has been willing to accept—or than its representatives have been willing to admit.

Take, for example, the behavior of Iraqi police who are supposed to become the backbone of Iraq’s internal security after the transfer of sovereignty. Many of them stepped aside last week as Sadr’s militia took to the streets and came to control all or most of three Iraqi cities. Some reportedly expressed sympathy for the militias.

Even more potentially troubling to the United States: There are signs of possible coordination, and certainly sympathy, between Sunni and Shiite factions. Despite significant differences on many issues, they share an opposition to the occupation. Last week, Sadr was being hailed in some of the Sunni press and his picture was being posted in some Sunni towns.

Refusing to acknowledge the scope of the problem not only creates a misconception at home about progress in Iraq, but it also muddles decision making. Would the administration have decided to announce Sadr was a wanted man and close his newspaper if it believed Shiite anger toward the United States was widespread, that Sadr’s support could increase and that the potential for a Sunni-Shiite coordinated opposition would emerge?

View of the U.S.

The view of the United States as an occupying power that must relinquish authority to a legitimate Iraqi government is widespread in Iraq, including among the Shiites and other segments of the Iraqi population that were happy to see Saddam Hussein’s government fall. It is also clear that the appointed Iraqi Governing Council lacks legitimacy and is seen primarily as an instrument of U.S. occupation.

No one today speaks for most Iraqis. But probably no one makes as much of a difference as the Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The most influential and respected Shiite theological figure in Iraq, he demonstrated his power in the past few months as he was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets to protest the U.S. plan to bypass direct elections.

The United States actually understands Sistani’s power, but U.S. policy-makers in Iraq didn’t seem to grasp the dilemma they put him in when they moved against Sadr. Although the less militant Sistani probably views Sadr as a threat to his authority, he increasingly finds himself having to take his side. Even Sistani has limited power and needs to maintain his nationalist credentials, and opposition to the United States outweighs opposition to Sadr.

In intensifying the battle against Sadr’s Shiite men, and in mounting the type of operation in Sunni Al-Fallujah last week that included an American attack on a mosque sheltering insurgents, the United States made it impossible for any credible Iraqi leader to take America’s side.

Surely the United States felt that it was in something of a no-win situation. If it didn’t strike back against insurgents—including the mob that recently mutilated the bodies of Americans—it could leave soldiers and other Americans vulnerable to more attacks. But the net result is the same: The bloody outcome assures more thirst for revenge, broader public sympathy for the militants, and more opposition to the United States. Sistani may want to remain on the fence, but with every casualty, he is forced to move closer to Sadr.

Last week may end up being a pivotal one because it made clear that there are no good options for America in Iraq. Inevitably, there is a tendency to look back to try to figure out what the administration could have done differently to avoid facing such bleak choices.

The failure to exploit American influence immediately after the fall of Saddam to broaden the international role and stakes in Iraq, the reluctance to move closer to Sistani on the issue of Iraqi elections, the destruction of existing Iraqi institutions, especially the army, and more recently, the hasty closure of Sadr’s newspaper all look like critical missteps.

Flawed decisions

Certainly, hindsight is always clearer. But in this case, there is a pattern of wishful thinking that blurred the picture and resulted in those flawed decisions. Administration officials have indulged in such thinking in part because they continue to rely for information on self-interested Iraqis, especially former expatriates, many of whom we now know provided erroneous information before the war on weapons of mass destruction. The other culprit in American leaders’ rosy outlook is the political need to tell “the good news” about Iraq to the American public, which has further distorted the analysis.

But the battle for Iraq has always been as much outside of that country as it was within. Iraq was to be either an inspiring model for the people of the Middle East in the pursuit of democracy or an example of American resolve that would command respect for U.S. power. Those goals may yet be met if one remains optimistic about the prospects for this troubled country in the years to come. But for now, the pictures of unrest and the American crackdown work against the United States in the Middle East and in much of the world.

Consider the recent statement by former U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix that Iraq today is in worse shape than it was under Saddam Hussein. Regardless of the objective facts in Iraq itself (where no doubt some Iraqis feel their country is better off), the perception in much of the world, and certainly in the Middle East, echoes Blix’s.

Bleak U.S. options

In the Arab world, where the majority of people had predicted that the war would result in less democracy in the region, most see the continued bloodshed, the personal insecurity, the economic hardship and the collapse of social norms as frightening experiences to be avoided.

Rather than serving as an inspiring model, today’s Iraq is a tool in the hands of authoritarian governments reluctant to embark on rapid change and happy to point to the Iraqi example: “Is this what you want for your own country?” And while many governments have been awed by the exercise of American power, most now see the United States as far weaker because it depleted its financial and military resources in Iraq.

As American options in the short-term look increasingly bleak, questions are again being raised about whether the United States should try to meet the projected June 30 date for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq or delay it.

That very debate may be distorting. Whatever one calls such formal change in the sovereign status of Iraq, both the reality on the ground and the global perceptions of that reality are not likely to change much: American forces will remain, Iraqi security will be highly dependent on them, and the U.S.-appointed government will continue to be highly responsive to American decisions. Few around the world will view Iraq as sovereign.

Instead of focusing on sovereignty in the short term, the administration—and Iraq—would be better served if the president considered more dramatic options. One would be challenging the U.N. Security Council to devise its own plan for Iraq, increasing its stakes in the country’s future; another would be contemplating the possibility of early elections, even if imperfect, if that’s what it takes to gain the support of credible Iraqi leaders such as Sistani.

The stakes are far too great to remain in the mode of wishful thinking or to link policy options to an election-year timetable.