The quagmire of liberation gone sour

Anti-Western violence is spreading across a wide swath of Islamic countries. Suicide bombings show some international influence from a revived Al Qaeda, but the bombers tend to be indigenous.

The Palestinian region has a long history - almost a tradition - of explosive self-immolation, and the extremists have been so far successful in frustrating efforts to open peace negotiations with Israel.

Five bombings last Friday in Casablanca, costing 41 lives, suggested a Moroccan cell linked to an international network. A taped message last February purporting to originate with Osama bin Laden included Morocco on a list of "apostate" Arab nations.

American officials believe that three attacks on housing compounds in Riyadh that killed 34 persons last week involved Saif Adel, a high-ranking Al Qaeda figure. The conspirators were reported by the Washington Post to have obtained arms from members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which, ironically, is American-trained.

But it is Iraq that has struck the heaviest blow against the Bush administration's aspiration for a democratically transformed post-Saddam Hussein Middle East. Anti-American resentments have been fueled by failure to restore basic services or to control widespread crime and vandalism. That in turn has prompted the Anglo-American occupation forces - and they are now officially occupation forces - to put off the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi authority. And that, in turn, has exacerbated tensions with Iraqis.

A sense of quagmire hovers over the liberation that went sour. Fifteen thousand additional troops to help maintain order will bring the American troop level in Iraq to almost 160,000. That represents 40 percent of the Army's 10 active divisions and dims the hopes of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for an early reorganization of the military into smaller, more agile units.

American GIs are not like the Roman Legions, especially trained to spread order, language, and civilization across the empire. But the role of American forces in Iraq seems to be mutating from liberators to occupiers. And they find it difficult to patrol efficiently from huge tanks.

Iraqis bitterly complain that the Americans have done little to restore basic services. Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico said at an appropriation hearing, "There is a real chance that the victory we claim is not a victory at all."

And so, while trying not to call attention to the fact, the United States and Britain are taking charge. An interim authority of Iraqis, when formed, will have an advisory role for an indefinite period. But meanwhile, the US and Britain will wield "absolute authority."

Where does that authority come from? The Bush administration, no great respecter of international treaties, has written the United Nations Security Council invoking The Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Those spell out occupation powers and responsibilities after an invasion.

The Hague document says, "The authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupier, the latter shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety...."

And so American soldiers are becoming the new centurions, charged with pacifying a disorderly realm. And Iraq, which was to be the model for democratization in the Middle East, joins other Arabs and Muslims who are hostile to America.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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