In Iraq, a void that breeds mistrust

In a country rife with weapons where law and order has broken down, basic services such as electricity and water have been interrupted, and where shops, offices and schools remain shut, most ordinary Iraqis are more concerned with living from day to day than with their nation's political future.

Nonetheless, uncertainty and mistrust of US intentions seem increasingly likely to complicate efforts to rebuild this country in the way that Washington policymakers had envisioned.

Some observers voice concern that Muslim fundamentalism may fill the void left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

While a team of US officials led by retired Gen. Jay Garner waits in Kuwait until the Iraqi capital is safe enough to set up shop, Iraqis across a broad spectrum of political views, religious sects, and ethnic groups are reaching the same conclusion, to judge from scores of interviews with Baghdad residents: They do not want Americans running their country, even during a transition period before an Iraqi government can be elected.

"We welcome any guest to our country," says Ali Sheikh Gomar al Rifai, the leader of a prominent tribe that has settled in Baghdad. "But I would like the Americans to stay until they take the guns from the people, until there is security. Then thank you very much, and I hope they leave."

Even the US-funded Iraqi National Congress (INC), whose leader Ahmed Chalabi arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday night, is already warning its American patrons to keep their distance. "We would like to see Iraqis in charge, and the sovereignty of Iraq in Iraqi hands at all times," says Zaab Sethna, Mr. Chalabi's spokesman, standing in the shade of a wall surrounding the Iraqi Hunting Club - once a favorite haunt of Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday, that the INC has taken over as its temporary headquarters. "We'd like to see Mr. Garner assisting, consulting and providing resources, but Iraqis making the decisions," he adds.

US officials have said American troops will leave Iraq as soon as possible, but Washington is readying a shadow government in Kuwait to run the country, in conjunction with anti-Saddam Iraqi figures, until elections that have yet to be scheduled.

"Our understanding of the American view of the interim Iraqi Authority is not good," complains Mr. Sethna. "We are waiting for them to spell out their vision of its composition, its terms of reference and the duration of its existence. We don't quite understand what the interim authority is."

"The unclear American agenda adds confusion," argues Gailan Ramiz, a Harvard-educated political science professor at Baghdad University. "In a political vacuum, people will begin to have less hope, and the greatest fear is that fundamentalism will prevail."

Trying to fill that vacuum in Baghdad is a committee headed by Mohammed Zubaidi, an INC member, who, coordinating with US military officers, has set about recruiting former Iraqi policemen to maintain order in the capital.

But his writ does not run far in this sprawling city of five million, where local religious leaders enjoy far more influence. Across Baghdad, and particularly in the predominantly Shiite Muslim district once known as Saddam City, clerics are setting up armed neighborhood watch patrols, recovering looted goods, and imposing their authority from the pulpit.

Thirty-five years of Baath Party dictatorship, which brutally repressed any opposition, has rooted out every sign of civil society and every institution in Iraq that might offer the foundations for a new beginning - except the mosques.

"In such circumstances, events could lead more to extremism than to moderation, hence the need for the Americans to handle Iraqi politics with great care," cautions Professor Ramiz.

The general mood of resentment at the prospect of anything that resembles an American occupation government poses a dilemma for the INC, whose leaders are little known in Iraq, but identified with the US.

In order to garner popular support, they will have to distance themselves from the United States, while yet maintaining their all-important ties to Washington.

"How distant can an Iraqi government be" from the global superpower that installed it, wonders Ramiz. At the same time, he argues, "The future of democracy and moderation in Iraq rests entirely on whether democrats and liberals here appear as quislings to their own people."

Iraqi nationalism is a potent enough force, he adds, that "pride and dignity must be (the democrats') banner. If pride and dignity are not on the democrats' side, they will be taken up by the fundamentalists, and there will be a revolution."

Mr. Sethna, the INC spokesman, insists that his party "is not beholden to anybody" and that "it is not our wish or intention to be anointed by anybody."

But if Iraqis feel they do not decide their destiny, he says, "if some kind of system is set up where Iraqis are not in control, then we'll find that every single party will run on an antioccupation platform."

The leaders of the former opposition forces, elected last February at a meeting in northern Iraq, are planning to hold another conference as soon as possible in Baghdad, Sethna said Thursday, at which the next steps for Iraq's re-creation will be discussed.

Their decisions will be eagerly awaited by a people uncertain of their future. At the moment, Ramiz believes, "they have guarded optimism, and I hope the Americans will justify that by establishing a real democracy and setting a timetable for the withdrawal of their troops."

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