New Iraq is unwanted Arab role model

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For an Arab world resistant to political reform, the new Iraq taking shape under U.S. tutelage is a troubling harbinger.

In the five months since U.S. forces rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein's rule, the country's ethnically and religiously diverse people have, in one giant leap, overturned decades of social and political injustice, replaced a brutal one-party system with a multitude of groups advocating a rich range of ideologies and created a free press.

Shiite Muslims, a majority in Iraq oppressed for decades by a Sunni minority favored by past colonial masters and later by Saddam, are now free to worship in public and visit their holy shrines. Kurds, non-Arabs whom Saddam killed by the thousands to suppress their struggle for self-rule, are now main players in the new Iraq -- their voices strong, their ideas sought.

Already Iraq's interim leadership is the only Arab government with a Shiite Muslim majority, and its foreign minister isn't even Arab.

But the path to democracy in this nation of 25 million people must get over some big hurdles for it to become a viable role model in a region ruled by change-resistant, authoritarian leaders and absolute monarchs.

"Diversity is the most distinct feature of the new Iraq," said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite who last month became the first president of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

"We raise our heads high and tell the world that, from now on, we will show a multitude of faces, offer you many voices and that's the new Iraq," he said in a recent interview.

Puppet nation

However, many in the Arab world view the new Iraq as a puppet nation where the United States calls all the shots. They also see it as a boon to Israel -- the Arabs' No. 1 enemy -- arguing that Saddam gave more support to the Palestinians than any other Arab leader and that he alone stood up to America.

"Most Arab intellectuals stood by the Iraqi regime for different motives and without any consideration for the suffering of the Iraqi people, simply because the regime was Arab and opposed America," Abdel-Khaleq Hussein, an Iraqi, wrote in an article published Sept. 7 in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

From the viewpoint of most Iraqis, Saddam was a brutal dictator who remained in power for as long as he did -- 23 years -- partly because Arab leaders kept quiet about his crimes in exchange for the large financial gains made from trading with Baghdad and so as not to invite criticism of their own dismal human rights records.

While most Iraqis celebrated Saddam's fall despite their misgivings about the Americans, Arabs beyond Iraq's borders were dismayed to see TV images of U.S. troops in central Baghdad. For their leaders, it was a question of who might be next.

Last week, the Arab League reluctantly accorded Iraq's interim leadership a measure of recognition when it allowed Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd and a longtime Saddam critic, to fill Iraq's seat in the Cairo-based organization.

The league also broke its silence on Saddam's crimes, condemning the mass graves in which the deposed dictator buried thousands of Shiites and Kurds who rose against his rule in 1991 or were suspected of dissent.

Pressure on regimes

Despite Arab misgivings, experts say the changes in Iraq are likely to put pressure on regimes to introduce political reforms, provided that U.S. plans for a new constitution, a general election and the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty by the end of 2004 are implemented.

"If we don't change," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian analyst and civil rights campaigner, "somehow it will be imposed on us. It's inevitable and if Arab leaders are smart, they should manage it, lead it themselves."

But Iraq's progress toward democratic rule is far from guaranteed with rivalries deepening among Shiite factions, attacks against U.S. troops showing no sign of abating and Sunni-Shiite friction becoming a potential threat to stability.

Last month's assassination of Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a top moderate Shiite cleric, in the holy city of Najaf has been widely blamed on Saddam loyalists who want to punish those collaborating with the Americans. But some suspect a radical Shiite group led by Moqtada al-Sadr, a young cleric who agitates against U.S. occupation and is scornful of clerics and politicians who have returned recently from exile.

The intra-Shiite rivalries, also thought to be responsible for the murder in April in Najaf of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, another senior cleric fresh from exile, are exacerbated by the near total silence of Ali Hussein al-Sistani, arguably Iraq's most respected cleric.

Al-Sistani, who is known to place his religious calling ahead of politics, is believed to have confined his movements to his Najaf home since the murder of al-Khoei. His aides say they fear for their leader's life but don't identify the source of that threat.

Al-Sadr, whose group has repeatedly denied any part in killing al-Hakim or al-Khoei, has not been engaged by the U.S.-led coalition in the Iraqi political process, a tactic that may explain his animosity toward the Americans.

But experts believe the Shiite desire to see the political process bear fruit -- with members of the community in power -- is strong enough to patch up differences, or at least contain them.

"Most Shiites appear to be engaged in an implicit political bargain," the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, said in a recent report.

"They will continue to work with the occupation forces in exchange for the prospect of genuine political power," it said.

Lurking in the background are the Sunnis, Iraq's political, economic and military elite for nearly a century but who now play second fiddle to the Shiites they once oppressed.

Shiite-Sunni tensions have so far been contained, with leaders of both sects making repeated calls for unity. But the suspicion that Saddam loyalists were behind the assassination of al-Hakim, possibly with the help of radical Sunnis from neighboring countries, may change that.

Also, most attacks on U.S. forces take place in the "Sunni Triangle," an area north and west of Baghdad where Saddam drew his strongest support. By contrast, Shiite Iraqis have refrained from attacking the Americans and argue that the Sunni insurgency places an obstacle on the road to independence.

The Sunnis, for their part, see the Shiite stance as tantamount to collusion with the country's occupiers and privately accuse them of harboring plans for an Iranian-style clerical government that would give the Shiite nation of neighboring Iran, Iraq's historical foe, influence over Iraqi affairs.

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