In Iraq, US influence wanes as full-scale civil war looms

Today's grim reality is in sharp contrast to the faith many Iraqis once held that the Americans would bring a better life.

Every day, more violence. And more uncertainty for Iraqis than they have ever known, as they mark three years since American troops invaded.

The wave of optimism that once buoyed Iraqis after the fall of Saddam Hussein is now being marked as yet another casualty of the bombs and murders that are part of daily life here.

But even as Iraq slides toward full-scale civil war, Iraqi analysts are trying to envision a way out of a vicious insurgency, political deadlock, and sectarian bloodshed.

One factor they are considering is the changing American role. Despite the continued presence of 130,000 American troops, and arm-twisting efforts by US diplomats to forge a unity government, Iraq's democratic political process is, by definition, giving the US even less leverage to shape this broken nation's future.

"The majority of Iraqis are now against this occupation, whether they are Sunni, Shiite or Kurd," says Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a political scientist who heads a Sunni-led group called the Foundation Conference. "But those in government positions are trying to unleash a campaign of suppression, to take advantage [of the violence], to dominate.

"Now we are told: '[The Americans] are not going to take sides,' " says Mr. Nadhmi, referring to remarks by US officials last week that Iraqi forces must handle sectarian strife on their own. "But if it comes to civil war, and the US does not try to keep order, as the controlling power, then why do they stay in Iraq?"

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in a maelstrom of insurgent violence. Many hundreds more are dying in sectarian killings that flared a month ago, after the destruction of the gold-domed Shiite shrine at Samarra.

The grim reality today - and the perception among so many Iraqis that the US is responsible - could not be in sharper contrast from the faith Iraqis once held, that the all-powerful Americans would solve their problems.

"It is unfortunate that we are in civil war," Iyad Allawi, Iraq's former prime minister, told BBC news Sunday. "We are losing each day an average of 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

That view is hotly disputed by US officials and commanders, but is on the lips of many Iraqis here. "Maybe we have not reached a point of no return yet, but we are moving towards this point," said Mr. Allawi.

But escaping that vortex will not be easy, analysts say.

"The new government is incapable of ruling the street without the American presence," says Ahmad al-Rikabi, head of the popular Radio Dijla in Baghdad. "If [US forces] left Iraq, the future of the country would be in the hands of the militias. This is the case already, but we still have some hope [the US] will keep some balance."

The stakes could not be higher, for Iraq or for the region, President Bush said last week. "The battle lines in Iraq are clearly drawn for the world to see, and there is no middle ground," he said. "The enemy will emerge from Iraq one of two ways: Emboldened or defeated."

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been pushing Iraqi leaders to form a unity government, that would mend rifts inside the main Shiite bloc, and ensure a significant role for the minority Sunni Arabs. At the formal opening of parliament last Thursday, he had a place in the handshaking line alongside Iraqi political leaders.

But diplomats close to the talks say not all Iraqi leaders welcome the forceful US intervention. Both Washington and Tehran have signaled that they could commence talks to solve the crisis, in what would be the first publicly acknowledged contact since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"Saddam Hussein is still ruling Iraq - he may be behind bars, but he created the mentality we have today," says Mr. Rikabi. "Saddam has to be executed. It's not revenge, and won't be satisfying for his victims. But it will be good for Shiite and Kurds, and even Sunnis, to help them focus on their leaders."

"The symbols of the past are still in front of our eyes; we're still living in the past, and must get rid of the past," says Rikabi.

Sectarian violence grows

But getting rid of the past means getting rid of business as usual, and that means coming to terms with the increasingly pervasive Shiite militia influence in Iraq's security forces, which are accused of abuse, torture, and operating death squads that target Sunni Arabs. They also reportedly let other Shiite militias, like the Mahdi Army of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, operate with impunity.

"The first thing is to change the minister," says a Shiite police colonel who asked not to be named, referring to Bayan Jabr, the minister of interior and a former Badr militia leader. "We need an independent one."

Ambassador Khalilzad has pushed for such a change. Shiites are targeted almost exclusively by the Sunni Arab extremist insurgents. But Sunni Arabs say they see little change on the ground.

"Nobody obliged the minister of interior to resign - he should be arrested," says Mr. Wamidh. "There have been no actual steps in favor of the Sunnis, but accumulated attacks against them."

The daily toll was again evident Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims made their way by foot to the sacred city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, to mark Monday the death of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

Pilgrims have been subject to drive-by shootings and bombings by Sunni Arab extremists that have killed four. A mortar landed near the shrine of Imam Hussein but caused no harm. An extra 700 American troops were deployed from Kuwait, to boost security during the religious event.

In Baghdad four bodies killed execution-style were found Sunday; 22 were found, by one count, the day before.

Whatever the result of the political wrangling, many Iraqis say it will not be enough to correct three years of US mistakes - from disbanding Saddam Hussein's 400,000-strong army with the stroke of a pen, to a vigorous de-Baathification plan that swept capable bureaucrats from government - that helped fuel insurgency.

Out of touch politicians

But there is a further problem, analysts say, that no amount of US influence can help: The fact that insecurity is so pervasive, that Iraqi leaders and the government meet inside the bubble of the Green Zone, among a labyrinth of 12-foot-high concrete blast walls woven together with coils of concertina wire that keep them safe, as well as isolated.

"The politicians are out of touch with the street, so it is like a group of blind people negotiating," says Rikabi. "They have nothing to do with the Republic of Iraq ... they do not feel a power cut for a second, while outside, [electricity] is off for 22 hours a day. You can't make the right decision, when the prime minister still has his family in London."

Relying on such politicians also risks the endgame for the US, which wants a unity government to take control - and control Iraqi security forces - so American forces can begin withdrawing.

"I can see their dilemma," says Nadhmi. "[President George] Bush is triumphant about democracy in Iraq, but if he tries to intervene and put in a prime minister of his own, it would be a contradiction."

Seventy-five daily insurgent attacks

Still, options are limited for the US - both military and political - which last week accused Iran of "meddling" in Iraqi affairs, and claimed that Iran had helped insurgents improve their explosive techniques.

The US military's "kinetic or muscular approach has failed to produce sustained success," says a report last month from the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), noting that insurgent attacks at a tempo of 75 per day against coalition forces show "no signs of diminishing."

It notes that several key non-Al Qaeda insurgent groups secretly agreed to a 21-point "principles for dialogue" with US forces last December. Such talks have not taken place in part, the IISS says, because "the very logic of elections, bringing to power an indigenous government with a mandate, has directly reduced US influence over Iraqi politics."

This has been clear for months to many in Iraq, who look back with nostalgia on Saddam Hussein, in the way that older Russians often crave the order once instilled upon the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin.

"People were executed in Saddam's days, but it is the same today," says Rikabi, of Radio Dijla. "Then it was behind high walls, now it is by this or that militia.

"Before, people respected the traffic police, there was an organization, a state; today we have the smell, the shadow of a government," says Rikabi. "Before, people would go to restaurants until 2 a.m.; today their lives are full of fear.

"Then, we had one Saddam Hussein," concludes Rikabi. "Today, we have many Saddam Husseins."

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