Jewish World Review April 29, 2003 / 27 Nisan, 5763

David Ignatius

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Omens of trouble in Iraq


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | BAGHDAD U.S. generals and intelligence officers have done many things right in this month's lightning victory in Iraq. But they appear to have botched their relationship with Iraq's newly ascendant Shiite Muslim majority, causing problems that could undermine U.S. postwar reconstruction efforts.

The Americans had a strategy for dealing with the Iraqi Shiite community, but it seems to have gone wrong almost from the start. The following account, drawn from conversations with Iraqi sources here and coalition officials, illustrates the dangerous landscape that is postwar Iraq.

The decisive setback for the U.S.-led coalition was the April 10 murder in Najaf of the Shiite cleric who was to be America's key ally in that community, Abdul Majid Khoei, 50. He was the son of a revered leader of Iraqi Shiites, the late Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem Khoei, who died in 1992 after being placed under house arrest by Saddam Hussein.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said after the younger Khoei's death: "He was a religious leader who embodied hope and reconciliation." In the weeks since Khoei's murder, U.S efforts to woo Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority have seemed to founder.

In early April, according to Iraqi sources, U.S. officials brought Khoei to the Talil air base near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, which had recently been seized by U.S. troops. U.S. Special Forces took him to Najaf a few days later. The strategy was for Khoei to gain control of the city and the gold-domed Imam Ali mosque there, which Shiite Muslims revere as the tomb of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali.

According to Iraqi sources, Khoei was to be assisted by about two dozen other Iraqi Shiites who had been recruited outside the country and flown into Iraq by the United States to help Khoei establish his power base in Najaf. They were accompanied by a CIA officer who gave them Thuraya mobile phones, the Iraqi sources said.

According to the Iraqi sources, Khoei planned to ask Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, to issue a religious fatwa urging Iraqi Shiites not to cooperate with an Iranian-backed mullah named Bakr Hakim. The United States hoped that Khoei could forge an alliance with the movement headed by a militant Iraqi Shiite leader in Najaf named Muqtada Sadr, whose father, a founder of an Iraqi wing of the Islamist Dawa Party, had been murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Things went disastrously awry soon after Khoei's arrival in Najaf. On April 10, he went to the Imam Ali mosque with a caretaker appointed by Hussein. Khoei apparently hoped to gain control of the mosque, but the two men were attacked by an outraged mob, and both were murdered.

Initial U.S. accounts of Khoei's death suggested that he had been killed accidentally, caught in the crossfire by a mob that was really after Hussein's hated caretaker. But Iraqi sources say the killing of Khoei was intentional. He fired a pistol in the air after the mob began its attack and was then stabbed repeatedly. According to one account, his assailants included Sadr's followers -- the very people the United States had hoped would be Khoei's allies.

The disaster in Najaf reinforced Shiite suspicions and boosted the power of pro-Iranian clerics, according to Iraqi sources. That's now one of the biggest problems facing U.S. forces in their attempt to create a stable, pro-Western government in postwar Iraq.

An earlier intelligence blunder of a different sort seems to have occurred in the early hours of the war. The United States apparently expected, based on covert contacts, that Iraqi Lt. Gen. Khaled Saleh al-Hashimi, commander of the Iraqi 51st Division, would surrender.

Hashimi's capitulation would have been a powerful psychological boost for the coalition. His troops guarded the area around Basra, and their surrender would have eased the way north.

U.S. officials actually announced Hashimi's surrender on March 21, the day the ground war began. The problem was, Hashimi hadn't surrendered. The next day he told al-Jazeera television that the reports were "a lie" and that "the commander and fighters of the 51st Mechanized Division are . . . fighting to defend Basra." The city finally fell nearly two weeks later.

A U.S. official cites the fog of covert war in explaining the confusion. Some of Hashimi's commanders may indeed have surrendered, as expected. Others may have been prevented from doing so. In any event, the official stresses, the march north continued.

For the U.S.-led coalition, the war itself truly may have been the easy part. The postwar battle now being waged, overtly and covertly, deserves as much care as the magnificently planned ground assault.

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