Friday, January 16, 2004

Shiites throwing their weight around,

As reported by the LAT:

Bremer Denies Rift With Iraqi Cleric
BAGHDAD — The U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, repeating the Bush administration's intention to keep its deadline for transferring power to the Iraqis, brushed back reports today that he openly disagrees with a key Iraqi cleric.

The LAT reports that Shiites are continuing to pressure the United States about direct elections. The Bush Administration seems understandably reluctant to provoke a face-down with the highest spiritual authority venerated by the Shiites in Iraq.

"We are neither so stupid nor so reckless as to want to make an enemy of Ali Sistani," a senior U.S. official said.

However, if the Administration caves to Shiite demands for direct elections it could have serious consequences for U.S. credibility in the region.

Officials fear that any sign that they would be prepared to abandon that agreement, which was signed by the Governing Council, would sow mistrust of the United States' willingness to keep its word among the Iraqis who have agreed to the plan.

A reversal also could invite new demands from other ethnic groups.


Clearly at this point, the Shiites are "testing the limits" of their burgeoning and imminent dominance of Iraq's political dynamics. By making demands on issues like elections or rolling back women's rights, the Shiites are attempting to see if Washington will back down rather than provoke a confrontation with them. The United States is in a precarious situation because it already faces stiff resistance from a domestic insurgency by the Sunni minority in central Iraq. The prospect of a military clash with Shiites clashing with U.S. troops would leave the United States isolated in Iraq with about 4/5ths of the country rising up to take arms against them. On the other hand, giving in to the demands might provoke a bloody civil war as the Kurds and Sunni's feel disenfranchised by Shiite dominance and take up arms. At one extreme the U.S. uses overwhelming force to crush dissidents and impose an illegitimate government, and at the other it withdraws and leaves the governance of Iraq to fractious ethnic violence. Unless the Administration can broker an acceptable compromise that ensures ethnic and regional stability in Iraq, this situation could rapidly devolve into a true military "quagmire".

UPDATE: U.S. offers partial compromise but insists on the previously established transition schedule.

Administration officials insist that they will hold to the July 1 deadline, but they are exploring ways to strike a compromise with al-Sistani and his supporters.

The Shiites seem in no mood to back down however:

... an associate of al-Sistani’s, Abdel Hakim al-Safi, wrote a letter to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, accusing the coalition of seeking to deny Iraqis their legitimate aspirations.

“We know that all the excuses you used to hinder the elections are not based on reality,” the letter said.



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