Commentary: Who's the Real Enemy in Iraq?

Until the U.S. learns to distinguish friend from foe, it'll keep alienating more and more Iraqis

By Stanley Reed

American commanders hope Saddam Hussein's capture will soon end the Iraqi intifada that has claimed the lives of more than 50 Americans since major operations ended on May 1. But don't bet on it: Plenty of Iraqis with no special allegiance to Saddam still have reason to lash out at the Americans, from rising crime to revenge for the death of relatives. "I don't think the guerrilla activity can just be explained by former members of the regime," says Raad Alkadiri, an analyst at Washington consultancy PFC Energy who recently visited Iraq. "The opposition is growing on other levels."

This resistance poses a key challenge to L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator. By branding too many Iraqis as unsuitable to participate in the new regime, the U.S. may be increasing resistance to its presence. Instead, the U.S. needs to do a better job of convincing Iraqis they have a stake in the new regime.

In this shift of perception, task No. 1 is getting a grip on the nature of the Baath Party, the ruling power in Saddam's regime. The Iraqi Baath Party had a membership estimated at 1 million to 3 million, and the common view is that all Baathists were incorrigible ideologues with blood on their hands. In reality, only a fraction of this number played violent roles under Saddam. Many people joined the party to advance their careers or because they admired its original secularist principles. Besides, in Saddam's later days, the real power stemmed not from the Baath, but from his clansmen around his hometown, Tikrit. These clans, numbering about 50,000, dominated the ruling class after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the Baathists' clout started to wane.

It's quite likely that the Tikritis are behind many of the attacks -- and that Bremer will have no choice but to suppress them. As for the Baath rank and file, most were never die-hard Saddamists, and they could easily be rehabilitated and recruited to serve useful roles. A high proportion of the technocrats in the government ministries that ran Iraq's infrastructure were Baathists. The U.S. can ill afford to let their skills go to waste.

A quick learner, Bremer is starting to recognize these distinctions. After initially banning senior party members from government positions, he has since turned a blind eye as former Baathists run the Oil Ministry. "It was obvious that if you de-Baathified the Oil Ministry, you wouldn't have any managers," says Toby Dodge, a specialist on Iraq at Britain's Warwick University. In another reversal, Bremer is paying pensions to ex-members of the military. His decision to disband the armed forces without pay had created thousands of potential enemies.

The wider population of Sunni Muslims is another matter where crucial distinctions need to be made. Hardcore Saddamists from the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad are a small percentage of the Sunni population. The military assumed that Fallujah, north of Baghdad, was a Baathist stronghold. Wrong: It is simply a conservative Sunni community. After confrontations in which U.S. troops killed at least 17 people, the military wised up. It is forging ties to local religious leaders and has compensated relatives of the dead.

If convinced that the U.S. intends to marginalize them, the Sunnis could prove formidable enemies. Yet the 25-person Iraqi Governing Council recently appointed by Bremer won't allay such fears. None of the council's four Sunni members represents the rural areas of the Sunni heartland. "There is something wrong with the process," says Laith Kubba, head of the Iraqi National Group, a Washington-based exile group promoting democracy. "It is designed to please the big players."

Kubba advocates quick national elections for a second, broadly representative council to perform functions such as drafting a constitution. Critics also think the current council relies too much on exiles. "Bremer should depend more on advisers within the country and not on those brought in from outside," says Issam A.R. Al-Chalabi, a former Oil Minister. It's not easy telling friend from foe in Iraq. But it is essential to winning the peace.

Reed covers the Middle East.

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