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U.S. Is Now in Battle for Peace After Winning the War in Iraq


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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The war in Iraq has officially ended, but the momentous task of recreating a new Iraqi nation seems hardly to have begun.

Three weeks after Saddam Hussein fell from power, American troops are straining to manage the forces this war has unleashed: the anger, frustration and competing ambitions of a nation suppressed for three decades.

In a virtual power vacuum, with the relationship between American military and civilian authority seeming ill defined, new political parties, Kurds and Shiite religious groups are asserting virtual governmental authority in cities and villages across the country, sometimes right under the noses of American soldiers.

There is a growing sense among educated Iraqis eager for the American-led transformation of Iraq to work that the Americans may be losing the initiative, that the single-mindedness that won the war is slackening under the delicate task of transforming a military victory into political success.

"Real freedom is organized and productive," said S. S. Nadir, a prominent art critic in Baghdad. "It is productive with real institutions of civil society that can do work. It needs groups of smart, educated, free, liberal people who can build projects."

"The Iraqi people have always been prepared for freedom," he said. "But we need help, and we are not sure the Americans can provide that."

Of course, little time has passed, and it is clearly too early to say how well a plan as ambitious as America's in Iraq the foundation of a federal democracy in a place that has never known such a thing will work. But some of the initial signs are mixed.

Anti-American sentiment remains palpable. West of Baghdad, United States troops this week shot dead 18 or more anti-American protesters.

Faced by such violence, no one American or one Iraqi currently seems to lead the country. Various figures with uncertain powers work for the Pentagon, the State Department or others. Jay Garner, a retired American lieutenant general who heads the civilian reconstruction authority, has been virtually invisible to Iraqis in the two weeks since he landed here.

Up to now, General Garner has appeared to lack the resources to promote that promised democracy. He presides over a tiny staff that lacks phones, e-mail or even minimal security to travel around the country. His future and his authority appear uncertain now that L. Paul Bremer, a former counterterrorism director in the Reagan administration, is expected to direct the selection of a transitional Iraqi government.

Alongside General Garner stands Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of all ground forces. Last week, amid looting and political turmoil, General McKiernan took the bold move of issuing a "proclamation to the people of Iraq" declaring, essentially, that he was in charge.

"As the head authority in Iraq," he wrote, "I call for the immediate cessation of all criminal activity to include acts of reprisal, looting and attacks on coalition forces."

But the proclamation, in English and Arabic, did not receive wide distribution. Some senior military officials suggested that the commander's statement was too strong. General Garner's men, charged with passing out the flyers, could summon neither the resources nor the energy to do it.

"Do you think we have hundreds of people to go around the city plastering things on walls?" one of General Garner's assistants asked.

The dilemma facing American officials is complex: they must assert authority, it seems, in order to stop disorder, but avoid doing so in a manner that suggests to Iraqis that the United States has come to dominate the land and its oil. Suspicions of such American ambitions are rife in this conspiracy-filled country.

The suspicions are fueled by the United States' relative isolation. Although the Bush administration plans to broaden the military administration of postwar Iraq by bringing in nations like Poland that supported the war, it appears more vulnerable because it finds itself acting for the moment without a United Nations mandate and without the support of major NATO allies like Germany and France.

Holding Back the Kurds

The United States also faces a tremendous challenge in trying to dampen the ardor of the Kurds for their own state, and in managing the resurgence of the largest religious group, the Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population.

For now, the Kurds seem willing to play loyal friend to the Americans, who have guaranteed the virtual autonomy of their territory in northern Iraq since 1991, and to wait and see if some kind of acceptable federal structure emerges.

Like the Roman Catholic clergy in Communist Poland, Shiite leaders in Iraq became the main font of resistance to Mr. Hussein's repressive government, and were long persecuted for their stand. Now that Mr. Hussein is gone, the Shiites appear to have an undisputed moral authority in wide areas. Across Iraq, including large parts of Baghdad, Shiite leaders have begun to assert control and take up essential public services.

For many of these Shiite leaders, their efforts represent the genesis of an Islamic state, modeled in no small way on their Shiite-majority neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Such a project is clearly incompatible with the American quest to install a democracy. Some of the leading Iraqi clerics have issued proclamations expressing intense hostility toward the United States, viewed as an infidel power whose temptations will ultimately corrupt the kingdom of Islam.

Still, despite such hostility, America has made some short-term headway. The looting and chaos of the early days have subsided. The rhythms of daily life are returning. Police officers are walking the streets of the capital, and shops and restaurants are slowly beginning to open. Large stores of ammunition, an omnipresent danger to Iraqis, have been destroyed.

For all the complaining, Iraqis still seem willing, for the moment, to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt: to wait for the schools to reopen, for instance, and American promises of democracy to emerge.

For now, General Garner seems hard pressed in trying to deliver on American promises. In his first three days, he did tour around, but mostly in the Kurdish north, where he was already known and liked for helping to organize crucial aid after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Without electricity, hardly any Iraqis could watch television footage of that trip. When he returned to Baghdad, he disappeared with his team of American and British officials into the Republican Palace, once the innermost sanctuary of Mr. Hussein.

General Garner meets in tight security with selected groups of Iraqi officials, has video conferences several times a week with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and speaks with his own team of former American generals and ambassadors. Since his first tour, there has been no sign of him walking the streets or even driving through neighborhoods. In the dozen or more new newspapers appearing on Baghdad's streets, there have been no Garner interviews, no Garner photographs.

On the key question of a future Iraqi government, American officials have called for a meeting in a month to chose an interim authority. The messy reality will probably result in some difficult balance among the groups competing for power.

Balancing the Parties

Two of those groups already have established a fair share of authority: the Kurds in the north, who have lived in de facto autonomy since the gulf war in 1991; and the Shiites in the south and in parts of Baghdad, who have a large, devoted following and have already taken over some public services.

There will also be Sunni Muslims, scores of home-grown political parties that have cropped up in the last three weeks and, most contentiously, the many Iraqi exiles who have returned home with the hope of some share of power.

Many Iraqis worry that a pragmatic balancing of those forces may prove elusive and the freedoms the Americans promised illusory.

Since the Americans and their allies deposed Mr. Hussein's government, their progress in restoring life's basic necessities has been uneven. In some parts of the country, like Basra, electricity and order have returned to large areas, drawing shoppers to the city's central market well into the evening.

Abbas Mustafa Hussein, a 42-year-old juice vendor who had just reopened his stand in Baghdad after 26 days, seemed to speak for many when he spelled out his feelings about the Americans, saying: "I don't want the Americans here forever. But if they left in the next couple of days, there would be even more chaos."

But for now in Baghdad, heaps of garbage pile up in the streets. Electrical power and running water are still absent much of the time. Across downtown, many merchants are still too frightened to open their shops.

Part of the explanation lies in the relatively small number of American troops being asked to control the country. Only 12,000 American soldiers have been assigned to Baghdad, a city of 5 million people. Only 150,000 American soldiers are being asked to maintain order across all of Iraq, population 25 million, and that number may be substantially reduced by the fall.

A week ago, a reporter driving across the length of Baghdad at 2 a.m. spotted only a handful of American soldiers, and those were standing around the Sheraton Hotel.

Apart from Baghdad's police force, hastily brought together amid the rioting and looting, 20 ministries lie in ruins. The Americans have begun to identify the employees of government departments and to cull those believed to have maintained close ties to Mr. Hussein's government. Otherwise, there is very little activity apparent in the ministries.

Without a central authority, many Iraqis are answering the calls of self-appointed leaders. Earlier this week, several hundred people stood outside a Baghdad social club that had been used only days before by Muhammad al-Zobeidi, a businessman who had proclaimed himself mayor.

The Americans had arrested Mr. Zobeidi, and he and all of his men were gone. But still the crowd came, heeding his earlier promise to put Iraqis to work.

The result was pandemonium, with hucksters selling bogus job applications and absconding with the cash.

"I am just doing what everyone else is doing," said Nawfal Abdul Razaq, 23, who had just bought a phony application. "I just want a job."

Scapegoating Americans

In such chaos, increasingly, the Iraqis overwhelmingly glad to be rid of Mr. Hussein are finding scapegoats in the Americans.

On Thursday, in the west Baghdad district of Alawi Hilla, an explosion at a gas station set off by celebratory gunfire over the return of electricity to the area turned rapidly into an anti-American fracas. One Iraqi man was killed in the explosion, and dozens were injured, but the subject that galvanized the locals was the American presence in Iraq.

"First it was Saddam's fault for bringing the Americans here," said Abbas Hatu, 23, a demonstrator. "Then the Americans' fault for not providing security for these poor people. They are only concerned about their soldiers' safety."

Often, the American authorities seem out of touch. In a meeting with Western news reporters this week, a senior member of General Garner's team expressed complete ignorance of an incident that was then some 40 hours old the first altercation involving American troops in the town of Falluja, in which 15 Iraqis were killed.

"I am operating in something of a news void," the official said apologetically. "I just did not know about it."

If there is no single American who firmly governs Iraq, there is no single Iraqi who does so either. The man who has received the most attention is Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile known here as "America's man" for the long support he has received in Washington. That association does not necessarily help his ambitions here, nor nurture a favorable image of America.

The scion of a wealthy Shiite family, Mr. Chalabi left Iraq in 1958. In 1992, he was convicted in absentia of embezzlement and fraud in Jordan over the operations of bank he founded there; he denies those charges, saying they were fostered by the Iraqi government. Since his return to Iraq last month, the behavior of his entourage has outraged many Iraqis, and even some Americans.

"What we have done is import mafias into Baghdad," said one American official, who insisted on anonymity.

The official was referring to the takeover of many of Baghdad's best houses by groups of men claiming to have formed new political parties. Kurdish parties have taken over a Baath Party headquarters and the engineering building of Mr. Hussein's office. Some have set up roadblocks and established militias, sometimes saying they are operating with the authority of the American military.

An early expropriator was Mr. Chalabi, whose supporters seized the elite Hunting Club, apparently with the permission of American soldiers. Various groups associated with him took over other expensive houses in the same area.

Last weekend, General Garner appeared to give tacit approval by dining with Mr. Chalabi at the club. All that, critics here say, has only encouraged other groups to go house-taking.

"What right does Chalabi have to take over these clubs?" asked Saif Hikmet al-Dujaili, a 25-year-old pharmacist who was thrown out of the Hunting Club.

General Garner emphasized last week that Mr. Chalabi was "not my candidate, not the candidate of the coalition."

The problems of managing Mr. Chalabi pale, however, in comparison with the difficulties of curbing the Shiite religious revival. In a recent fatwa a religious pronouncement Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, one of the most influential Iraqi clerics, urged his followers to spurn their American occupiers.

"People have to be taught not to collapse morally before the means used by the Great Satan, if it stays in Iraq," the fatwa read, referring to the United States. "It will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels, spreading debauchery to weaken peoples' faith in schools, governments and homes."

Already, Shiite leaders loyal to Mr. Haeri claim control over much of Najaf, Karbala, the sprawling Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and a string of other Iraqi cities.

To date, the Americans say they are fostering "Islamic democracy," a hybrid that might satisfy the American desire for Western institutions while dulling the harder edges of an Islamic republic. In practice, the Americans have engaged even the more radical of Shiite clerics, while trying also to strengthen those like Ayatollah Ali al-Sisteni, who appears to support a democratic, parliamentary system.

Offering ID Cards

The potential pitfalls of the American approach seemed to reveal themselves in a recent conversation between a young American soldier and an Iraqi man in Sadr City, a neighborhood of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City.

The soldier, Maj. Kelly Ward, was trying to pass out American identification cards to a group of about 20 Iraqis who had been trying to maintain security in the area. The cards carried an inscription declaring the bearer to be "recognized as a local guard by the Cougar Squadron commander."

The Iraqi men, who carried their own ID cards issued from an influential council of clerics called the Hawzah, were resisting. They believed that they were acting under divine authority.

"This is to prove to us that you are volunteers working with the coalition forces," Major Ward insisted, pressing his ID cards on the men.

One Iraqi said they had ID's from the Hawzah, "We want to use those," he said. "Why can we not use these?"

"We cannot do that, because then we would not recognize you," Major Ward replied. "If we found weapons with anyone, we might start shooting."

"But we submit to the Hawzah," the Iraqi man said with finality, "and we have to carry the ID's that represent the Hawzah, and not the coalition forces. We do not take orders from anyone else."


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