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In Iraq, US influence wanes as full-scale civil war looms

Today's grim reality is in sharp contrast to the faith many Iraqis once held that the Americans would bring a better life.

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"The first thing is to change the minister," says a Shiite police colonel who asked not to be named, referring to Bayan Jabr, the minister of interior and a former Badr militia leader. "We need an independent one."

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Ambassador Khalilzad has pushed for such a change. Shiites are targeted almost exclusively by the Sunni Arab extremist insurgents. But Sunni Arabs say they see little change on the ground.

"Nobody obliged the minister of interior to resign - he should be arrested," says Mr. Wamidh. "There have been no actual steps in favor of the Sunnis, but accumulated attacks against them."

The daily toll was again evident Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims made their way by foot to the sacred city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, to mark Monday the death of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

Pilgrims have been subject to drive-by shootings and bombings by Sunni Arab extremists that have killed four. A mortar landed near the shrine of Imam Hussein but caused no harm. An extra 700 American troops were deployed from Kuwait, to boost security during the religious event.

In Baghdad four bodies killed execution-style were found Sunday; 22 were found, by one count, the day before.

Whatever the result of the political wrangling, many Iraqis say it will not be enough to correct three years of US mistakes - from disbanding Saddam Hussein's 400,000-strong army with the stroke of a pen, to a vigorous de-Baathification plan that swept capable bureaucrats from government - that helped fuel insurgency.

Out of touch politicians

But there is a further problem, analysts say, that no amount of US influence can help: The fact that insecurity is so pervasive, that Iraqi leaders and the government meet inside the bubble of the Green Zone, among a labyrinth of 12-foot-high concrete blast walls woven together with coils of concertina wire that keep them safe, as well as isolated.

"The politicians are out of touch with the street, so it is like a group of blind people negotiating," says Rikabi. "They have nothing to do with the Republic of Iraq ... they do not feel a power cut for a second, while outside, [electricity] is off for 22 hours a day. You can't make the right decision, when the prime minister still has his family in London."

Relying on such politicians also risks the endgame for the US, which wants a unity government to take control - and control Iraqi security forces - so American forces can begin withdrawing.

"I can see their dilemma," says Nadhmi. "[President George] Bush is triumphant about democracy in Iraq, but if he tries to intervene and put in a prime minister of his own, it would be a contradiction."

Seventy-five daily insurgent attacks

Still, options are limited for the US - both military and political - which last week accused Iran of "meddling" in Iraqi affairs, and claimed that Iran had helped insurgents improve their explosive techniques.

The US military's "kinetic or muscular approach has failed to produce sustained success," says a report last month from the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), noting that insurgent attacks at a tempo of 75 per day against coalition forces show "no signs of diminishing."

It notes that several key non-Al Qaeda insurgent groups secretly agreed to a 21-point "principles for dialogue" with US forces last December. Such talks have not taken place in part, the IISS says, because "the very logic of elections, bringing to power an indigenous government with a mandate, has directly reduced US influence over Iraqi politics."

This has been clear for months to many in Iraq, who look back with nostalgia on Saddam Hussein, in the way that older Russians often crave the order once instilled upon the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin.

"People were executed in Saddam's days, but it is the same today," says Rikabi, of Radio Dijla. "Then it was behind high walls, now it is by this or that militia.

"Before, people respected the traffic police, there was an organization, a state; today we have the smell, the shadow of a government," says Rikabi. "Before, people would go to restaurants until 2 a.m.; today their lives are full of fear.

"Then, we had one Saddam Hussein," concludes Rikabi. "Today, we have many Saddam Husseins."