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They feud, we stay
Media General News Service


April 27, 2005

Washington - Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was telling some of us Monday about listening to returning troops at a Democratic policy luncheon. One sergeant summed up the mood by recalling how he would get a thumbs-up from American troops on his first tour of duty in Iraq. Now, the sergeant told Reid, when he passes by, "They don't even let you know they're there."

Reports of low morale and rising dissatisfaction with the state of armor and equipment don't seem to be mitigated by a little Iraqi progress forming a government. Iraq's ability to fight off an insurgency on its own is still way over the horizon.

Reid said the policy committee was told there were still less than 20,000 Iraq security personnel capable of operating on their own in combat against the al Qaeda and former Baathist insurgents who have been running amok in areas of central Iraq.

The Pentagon is still inflating figures to make it sound like the Iraqis are nearly ready to take command, with 140,000 trained guardsmen under arms, says Reid. But most of those are greenhorns who have barely been through a few weeks' basic training. They aren't ready for hard duty.

On the political front, motion is being detected. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally shaking the trees, the incoming Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite Muslim, met with President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, and put together a list of Cabinet members for submission to the national assembly.

Rice reportedly did not specify an outcome but did tell the two leaders they needed to stop dawdling and get to a conclusion. It worked. Sort of.

The result may be a government in Iraq that could turn Iraq into more of a sectarian Islamic state than Iran.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's party - the only secular hope in sight - apparently was dumped from the final Cabinet list for being too cozy with Saddam Hussein's former followers.

The ultra-religious trend of the new government seems set. Already, its 275-member National Assembly is dominated by al-Jaafari's two Shiite political parties, which have their roots in neighboring Iran's mullah-run government and the strict adherence to Islamic doctrine.

In the Arab world, this development is a bigger deal than it is here. It is the first time an Arab country has been ruled by the Shiites, a minority sect of the Islamic world, in modern times. Iran, which is also a predominantly Shiite Muslim nation, is not an Arab country.

The Iraqi revolution is so historic that Jordan's King Abdullah has raised the specter of a "Shiite crescent" being formed, to the detriment of predominantly Sunni Muslim nations like Jordan.

At least some of the violence in Iraq seems to have been directed by Sunnis as former Baathist regime elements against the Shiites, although some exaggeration of that may be taking place in the politicking for seats in the Cabinet.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, national security adviser of the ruling Dawa party in Baghdad, told the Qatar Daily Star "Arabs speak of Shia-phobia. Thank God this is gone from the American mind, but Shia-phobia and Kurdish-phobia are still engrained in the Arab mind. Many Arabs still think of Kurds as separatists only and of Shiites as infidels. That is the perception, that Shiites are loyal to Iran. The common Iraqi perception that the Arab world is supporting one community inside Iraq against the others has had a major impact inside the country, and has been an important reason for the continuing insurgency."

He said if Arab leaders had taken a clear stand and told the Sunnis to stop the fighting, there would be peace by now.

"Instead we hear about the 'Shiite crescent' or statements that are interpreted as Arabs supporting Sunnis against Shiites or Kurds," he said in a slap at Abdullah next door. "It's a real problem."

Once Iraq's Cabinet is formed, the slow, painful and expensive process of rebuilding Iraq begins, as well as an election for a new constitution in December. The pitfalls are enormous. A purge of Baathists from the security forces may be inevitable. Each of the groups _ Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds _ may want its own armed militia groups to restore order.

The pace of the American withdrawal from Iraq could be at the mercy of these current rivalries and ancient feuds.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

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