AS Shiites and Kurds battle the regime of Saddam Hussein and Iraqi opposition parties try to patch together a democratic future, the United States finds itself in the awkward position of, in effect, supporting continuing one-party rule in Iraq. US government statements, including those of President Bush, have stressed the desire to see Saddam Hussein overthrown, but not to see Iraq broken apart by civil strife. At the same time, Bush administration officials have insisted that democracy is not currently a viable alternative for Iraq.
"The US has an absolute preference for a parliamentary democracy, but it's not going to happen," says one administration official, defending the policy. "So I suppose that if there's going to be another strongman, we'd prefer a military man over a wild-eyed Islamic type."
"The Americans would prefer to have another Assad, or better yet, another Mubarak in Baghdad," says a European diplomat, referring to the military-backed regimes of Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. "The American position is that democracy is not a possibility now."
This may account for the fact that thus far, the administration has refused to meet with Iraqi opposition leaders in exile, even though the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, and Britain have done so.
Critics of US policy say Washington is mishandling the situation and that support for dictatorship could jeopardize long-term US interests in the region if opposition elements win out.
Behind US words and actions lies a fear that anti-Saddam revolts in the Shiite south and the Kurdish north could herald either a takeover by Shiites close to Iran or the possible dismemberment of the Iraqi state by Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
For the last 23 years, secular military-backed regimes have held together Iraq's disparate communities - including the Kurds and the Shiites, who number 55 percent of the population.
"We've always favored the territorial integrity of Iraq," says the administration official, pointing out that Kurdish parties have historically advocated a separatist state. "We said it wouldn't serve our goals."
Another administration official says Washington could win the Gulf war but lose the political battle in the region if Iraq is not preserved as a "modern polity."
Since the beginning of the crisis, the US has been concerned that Saddam's defeat on the battlefield could trigger dismemberment, further destabilizing the region. The US also opposes the formation of an Islamic republic that could fan anew the flames of fundamentalism, a threat the Arab states thought they had licked when Iraq fought Iran to a standstill in their eight-year war.
Arab and US agendas
After the coalition victory, US concerns seemed to be borne out as rebels in the south and north sparked local uprisings against the regime. US officials say the situation is too fluid to forecast. But, as some see it, continued one-party or military rule would preclude the possibility of dismemberment or Islamic rule.
"The Arabs and the US have the same agenda," says a coalition diplomat. "We want Iraq in the same borders and Saddam to disappear. But we will accept Saddam in Baghdad in order to have Iraq as one state."
But critics charge that the US is misreading the situation or letting its policy be determined by those of its Arab allies.
"I'm making an argument that you can't look to another military dictator," says Laurie Mylroie, a specialist on Iraq and author of a recent bestseller on Saddam Hussein. "What the US has done is to leave it to the Saudis, and the Saudis prefer a military government. If the revolt in Iraq succeeds, the US will have supported the Saudis," not the Iraqi people, she says. This position "is not consistent with our values."
Iraqi Shiite aims
In addition, Ms. Mylroie says, the Shiites in southern Iraq are not pro-Iran: "The revolt is anti-Saddam and not pro-anything. The Iraqi Shiites are different from the Iranians. It has to do with being Arab and secular."
Mylroie says the US should state that any new regime should be a transition to constitutional democracy.
Defenders of US policy maintain that Washington is being pragmatic. They say the US is unable to influence Iraqi politics because the US Army did not go all the way to Baghdad. Some argue that a weakened Saddam in the presidency will be no threat to neighboring countries, or that a new military or Baath party leader could be "leaned upon" to be more humane.
"Another military man is not going to be a Saddam," says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for the Middle East and now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Baath Party and the military are the only in-country institutions today. They have been deformed by Saddam into personal tools. But they might prevent Iraq from blowing apart."
In addition, some Middle East experts doubt that the Iraqi opposition parties - more than 20 recently met in Beirut - will be able to achieve a consensus.
"The leaders of the respective factions go back 20 years outside Iraq. They are very diverse in their goals," says Murphy. "The problems they are going to have in constituting a valid opposition are great. If they need so much outside support, what does that tell you about their ability to govern?"
Nicholas Veliotes, another former assistant secretary, adds: "You've got the problem of the Saudis," who would be furious if the US supported democracy. Mylroie and others say the US should not defer to the Saudis.
Consequences of war
Rashid Khalidi, associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Chicago, says the US should have considered the repercussions before going to war. "We ignored the consequences of war," he says. "The people [in the State Department] who know about the Arab Middle East, who know the history, the religion, the peoples, and the culture, they have been frozen out." He was referring to the control of policymaking by a few close aides to Secretary of State James Baker III.
"We shouldn't have destabilized the place in the first place," he says. "Once you've created the desert, it's pretty hard to pretty it up."
Of the current situation in Iraq, Mylroie warns, "There's a goof looming. If the revolt in the south succeeds, then all the US can do is moan and groan. That's not policy."