In Iraq, a democracy out of dust?

US plan tries to tap Iraqi strengths, but skepticism abounds.

What lies ahead in Iraq may well mark the biggest test of winning the peace since World War II.

The fundamental question: Can the US turn a harrowing dictatorship into a democracy as well as it has executed the war?

Washington is implementing a plan that has a civilian American administration moving soon into pacified sections of Iraq. Its goal is to put the country back on its feet while an interim authority "emerges" from the Iraqi people.

Iraqis would take over what the administration calls "soft" ministries first, while the US holds the reins longest in security and intelligence areas. Perhaps two years down the road, when a constitution could be approved and elections held, a major US presence could wind down.

It's a scenario that critics say is naively optimistic for a country coming out of a brutal dictatorship and too dependent on one power - the US - that is not popular in the Arab world. But on the other hand, it is a plan that some Iraqis say has the virtue of having faith in the Iraqi people to rise quickly to the task of rebuilding their own country.

And it's a plan with a powerful backer in President Bush. "From Day 1, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country," the president said this week after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "The position of the United States of America is the Iraqis are plenty capable of running Iraq, and that's precisely what's going to happen."

The US plan starts from the assumption that Iraq is not Afghanistan, but rather, a well-educated country with natural wealth in its oil. It's also thought of as having a developed (though deteriorated) infrastructure and civil service, and a broad middle class. Historically, these elements have fostered democracy.

Yet while all that may be true, others see potentially grave dangers lurking in too few details and an apparent faith that a new Iraqi leadership can quickly emerge.

"The end vision is fine, but the administration has not clearly mapped out a path for Iraq - how the country will get from one point to the next, what the benchmarks will be along the way," says Victoria Holt, a former State Department official and now nation-building expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

What could go wrong

No lesser figure than Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, is warning that attempts to move too quickly and without international backing could backfire. "I'm a skeptic about the ability to transform Iraq into a democracy in any realistic period of time," Mr. Scowcroft said this week in remarks at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo. A US-dominated reconstruction of Iraq, even with British participation, could pique the "wrath and enmity of the Muslim world," he said, and risks opening a door to new despots.

"What's likely to happen is that the meanest, toughest [leaders]," perhaps even radical religious leaders, he added, "will rise to the top, at least for a couple of generations."

Some Iraqi exiles say such thinking does not give the Iraqi people credit for the ability and stamina to build a new democratic regime. A go-slow approach that waits for debate and approval from the United Nations risks missing a unique opportunity for the Middle East, they say.

"The ultimate historical test of what this war is all about [will be the] Iraqi and American ability to create in Iraq a regime that is different from the norm in that part of the world," says Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile who has been working closely with the Bush administration on planning for postwar reconstruction.

Mr. Makiya is one of the architects of the Iraqi Interim Authority, which he calls a "provisional structure on its way to becoming a government." Although all the details are not yet decided, it already has several purposes: to get Iraqis administering progressively broader segments of their own country, to serve as a focal point for developing new Iraqi leadership - and to allow the US to dodge criticism that it is occupying and running Iraq.

Under the current plan, the US would have a key role in ensuring that the top cadres of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party are unable to influence the country's direction. And the US is already gearing up for a central role in the national education system. Its reform - right down to the quick replacement of textbooks filled with Baathist ideology - is seen as crucial to democracy's prospects.

But specialists who question the wisdom of the US assuming so much of the reconstruction role on its own say other recent experiences underscore how much time, money, and dedication are needed. The Stimson Center's Ms. Holt notes, for example, that more than a year into creating an all-new 60,000-soldier national army in Afghanistan, the US has trained roughly 3,000.

How will 'emerging' happen?

Then there is the question of how leaders are supposed to emerge in a country where the only political party that's been legal for 40 years is being crushed. The US insists it has not preordained anyone to rise - a claim it has had to repeat after sending Ahmed Chalabi of the exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC) into southern Iraq to lead a force of "freedom fighters." The move raised eyebrows, since Mr. Chalabi is close to the Pentagon, which has favored preferential treatment for exiled leaders with demonstrated democratic convictions.

One of the administration's stated goals has been to facilitate the emergence of new leaders from both the exile and "internal" communities. The State Department says that next week the US will begin what is to be a series of meetings around the country to bring the two groups together and begin working on formation of the interim authority. One likely goal of such local meetings would be the convening of a national "leadership" conference in Baghdad, officials say.

But others caution that it will be neither easy nor quick to bring together Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious groups in agreement on a system of government. Marina Ottaway, a specialist in democratization at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that a similar process for democratic rule among South Africa's diverse groups took four years. "There won't be any way around a long period of negotiations with Iraq's exile and internal groups, and that's where the US could run into trouble," she says.

Keeping security in a country that otherwise could slip into instability will require a relatively long-term presence. "But the US cannot afford to be an occupying power for that period of time," Ms. Ottaway says, "particularly not in the Middle East, where it is also concerned with improving its image."

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