Beyond the `No Fly' Zone

The US can help foster democracy in Iraq through policies that strengthen the Shiites and Kurds as political counterforces to Saddam.

DESPITE the Arab governments' misgivings about the future of the Iraqi state, creating a "no fly" zone over southern Iraq is a good beginning toward the removal of Saddam Hussein. But this move is not enough, and by itself may cause more suffering to the people it is intended to protect.

There is nothing to prevent Saddam from using his tanks and guns to crush the Shiites on the ground. In fact, the no-fly zone could be used by Saddam as a pretext for further actions against the Shiites.

Since Saddam has already called the no-fly plan an imperialist conspiracy, those Shiites who continue to rebel against Baghdad can be accused of collaborating with the imperialists. Saddam's forces thus could feel justified in further, and perhaps fiercer, attacks against the Shiites. The West would then be morally obliged to go beyond a no-fly zone to establish a security zone for the threatened Iraqi Shiites just as they did for the Kurds in northern Iraq.

A safe haven for the Shiites, coupled with what has been done in the Kurdish north, could be the first serious step toward establishing a democratic Iraq.

Both the Kurdish north and the Shiite south could function as a counterforce to the oppressive and intrusive Iraqi state. Saddam's almost totalitarian state has obliterated most of the independent social organizations in Iraq that could form the basis of an alternative source of governance.

To have any leverage against Saddam, the Bush administration must start with helping the Shiites build their social institutions, create a local economy, and develop a system of local government similar to the Kurdish arrangements in the north. The United States would be helping to create a real Iraqi opposition, in contrast to just relying on a group of dissidents living outside the country, as Washington is doing now.

This task requires controversial actions, however, such as easing the economic sanctions against the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. Easing the sanctions is essential because the current regime is using food as a weapon against both the Kurds and the Shiites. The Kurds and Shiites are suffering from a double blockade - one that is imposed by the international community on Iraq and the other imposed by Saddam on these two groups. The group least affected by the sanctions are the loyal Sunnis in Baghda d.

Easing the sanctions against the Shiites and the Kurds will help them build their social institutions, revitalize their local communities, and liberate them from Saddam's politics of starvation. Helping the Shiites as well as the Kurds to develop local economies will drive home to the rest of the Iraqi population a very important message: People can survive without reliance on a corrupt, oppressive regime in the center.

When representatives of the coalition of Iraqi opposition groups were in Washington, they raised the issue of freeing some Iraqi assets to be used in revitalizing the local economy of so-called Kurdistan. The administration should act on this proposal.

The only way to convince the Sunnis in Baghdad to abandon the Old Guard is by creating an attractive alternative in the Shiite and Kurdish areas. If the Sunni population perceives that the Shiites and the Kurds have a better life out from under Saddam's regime, they would have a reason to change their position.

By creating two strong societies north and south of the Iraqi capital, the allies will help the Iraqis themselves to take on the task of a peaceful transformation of their country from one that is put together through sheer brutal force to a democratic federation based on economic interests and respect for human rights.

There are few risks in such an undertaking. The fear that the Shiites will grow stronger and ally themselves with Iran is unfounded. The Shiites of Iraq are Arabs before they are Shiites. Analysts should not equate the Shiite-Sunni split in Islam with the Catholic-Protestant split in Christianity. Further, it is not in the interest of the Shiites - who represent the majority of the Iraqi population - to secede from Iraq. Majorities never secede; instead, they gravitate toward preserving a larger state in

which they rule.

Arab states that reacted against the declaration of the no-fly zone are not concerned about the territorial integrity of Iraq but rather about the prospect of a strong civil society that checks the power of the highly centralized state. Egypt is afraid that the Copts might ask for similar treatment, and the Saudis are afraid that their Shiites would want the same rights as the Shiites in southern Iraq.

All regimes of the region fear that they will come under pressure to respect the human rights of their minorities. The US should not regard these concerns as legitimate fears of the Arab people. Rather, they are the desires of the repressive ruling elites of the Arab world to keep the majority of people in their countries outside the political process.

The only risk in the new policy is that Saddam will crush the Shiites on the ground, and for the second time the Shiites would be paying the price for responding to Washington's moves. If this happens, the US will lose the trust of the Shiite opposition forever, and Washington must prevent it.

Moving beyond a no-fly zone to establish a safe haven for the brutalized Iraqis and easing the sanctions on the Shiites and the Kurds are not just politically prudent decisions: They are also a moral imperative.

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