AS chaos reigns in Iraq, the United States and its allies are missing an opportunity to work constructively with moderate figures in the Iraqi opposition who represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people, and particularly the majority Shiite population. The coalition's fear of appearing to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs, while at the same time occupying about one-fifth of the country, looks to the people of the region like a policy of indifference - or confusion.
This is a major mistake, which could have grave consequences in the not-very-distant future. It has also emboldened Saddam Hussein to push his fierce policy of suppression to unprecedented extremes.
The best historical analogy is the Hungarian uprising of 1956, when the opposition raised its head and then lost it. In Iraq, the coalition's policy has allowed most of the potential political opposition to surface - thus providing Saddam with the best opportunity to purge them.
As the coalition army stands by, largely unarmed Iraqi civilians have taken on remnants of Saddam's army, and many have reportedly lost their lives.
On March 20, the No. 1 figure in the Shiite community - the 90-year-old grand Ayatollah Abulqasem Kho'i - and his son were kidnapped from their home in Najaf. A few hours later, he was shown on Iraqi TV, seated next to Saddam. Asked how he felt, the Ayatollah Kho'i replied, "I am much closer to death than to life."
Two days earlier, Ayatollah Kho'i had published a decision saying that for Muslims, self-defense is obligatory. In the delicate double talk perfected by those living under Saddam's oppression, this was understood as a call for support for the uprising against the regime.
The coalition is wasting the prestige it earned by its successful reversal of Saddam's aggression against Kuwait - not only among the Iraqi people, but also among peoples throughout the region.
This prestige gives the coalition leverage, but it's not being used. At a time when they should be dealing with the Iraqi uprising promptly and with resolve, the alliance seems to be suffering from a lack of strategic vision.
The coalition's inaction in the face of the uprising inside Iraq contradicts its inclination to promote more democratic domestic policies in the region.
The unrest in Iraq is proof that Saddam's Baath party, which some American analysts argue is the only force capable of uniting and ruling all groups in Iraqi society, does not represent the views of the country's people.
Some advocates in Washington and elsewhere urge support for the Kurdish opposition. But as the US ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week: "It's not just the Kurds of Iraq but also the Arabs of Iraq who have suffered tremendously from the current regime."
Almost 60 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, and abandoning the predominant Iraqi majority may push all moderate elements to extremism in the future. Extremism in all its forms has cost Middle Eastern countries a lot in the past decade. But the West's fear of religious fundamentalism and radicalism in the region has pushed it toward another extreme - a phobia about Shiite Islam.
The West should know that there are eminent Shiites inside Iraq with an established record of moderation on Middle Eastern issues and on questions of international relations over the past decade. These influential figures believe that the only way for countries in the Middle East to get out of the prevailing miserable situation is to rid the region of all sectarian political frictions and frustrations.
The Shiite insurgence in Iraq is more a popular revolt than a religious uprising, and should not be viewed with fear.
Giving Shiite views their due weight need not imply support for the disintegration of Iraq - in fact, just the opposite. Embracing the views of all segments of Iraqi society, including the majority Shiite population, would contribute to maintaining and reinforcing the territorial integrity of the country.
Any kind of decent government in Iraq will have to have substantial input from the Shiites. How could the West want anything less?