Commentary: Hearts, Minds, And Mistakes

How can the U.S. win back the goodwill it lost in Iraq? First, empower the Iraqis

How did the U.S. lose the goodwill it had acquired by toppling Saddam? Ask Iraqis what the Americans did wrong, and the answer is simple: You excluded us from running our own country, and you don't care what we think. This, to the Iraqis, has been the pattern from the beginning. The result has been a huge split in how the Americans and Iraqis have seen events, almost from the day Saddam's statue crashed down.

Take the U.S. decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army. At the time it looked like a smart way to dispense with a potential trouble spot. But to many Iraqis, it was mistake No.1: The rank and file were simple soldiers, not thugs. Then the U.S. weeded out Baath Party members from positions of influence. Again, it seemed to make sense to the Americans, who saw the party as Saddam's core power structure. But to thousands of Iraqi professionals, membership was nothing sinister. Result: the alienation of many influential Iraqis, a consequence the U.S. surely did not intend.

This split shows itself even more in the horrendous events of early April. How could the U.S. not retaliate against Fallujah for the brutal killings of civilian contract workers? Yet many Iraqis criticize the U.S. for not bothering to consult the Iraqi Governing Council about an appropriate response. There is no simple solution for this nasty mess. But many Iraqis condemn the Americans for punishing an entire city for the crimes of a handful. In that sense, the perpetrators have successfully driven another wedge between Americans and Iraqis. "The problem was not that the U.S. responded with force, it was that it did so without clear political objectives, support from the [Iraqi] Governing Council, and without proper consideration of how the fighting might impact on Sunni, Iraqi, and Arab public opinion," says Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

Perhaps the biggest U.S. mistake has been a failure to understand the complexities of the Shiite community. The U.S. thought it could count on the support of the Shiites, a group heavily persecuted under Saddam. After all, the Kurds backed the U.S. -- why not the Shiites? But about a third of all Shiites think the war unjust and consider the occupation humiliating. A recent poll found that 12% of Shiites think violence against the coalition was justified. At close to 2 million, this minority is big enough to cause serious trouble -- and back Moqtada al-Sadr's radical movement. That's why some Shiite politicians think the U.S. should have reached out to the reasonable leaders in Sadr's group and even appointed one or two to the council. That way, the erratic Sadr might have been marginalized.

Even when Americans have tried to deal with Shiite leaders, Iraqis feel they have not had the right antennas. U.S. wrangling with Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, over the desirability of holding elections and over language of an interim Iraqi constitution has been damaging. To the U.S., the wrangling may have seemed justified: It did not want to appear to cave in to one cleric's demands. Yet the moderate Sistani is a natural ally of the U.S., and the tough U.S. stance offended many. "If they continue this policy of neglecting Sistani, he will lose his status," says Ghanim Jawad, a Shiite activist in London. "The people around him will pressure him to do something."

The U.S. is beginning to learn, senior Iraqis say. For instance, the new Defense Minister, Ali Allawi, says he has broad authority over appointments, although the U.S. will have a large say in training and operations. Allawi says that U.S. officials are starting to realize they have been too slow to hand over power and build up the credibility of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. As a senior British official says, "it has been strangely difficult" to persuade the council to "get out and speak about how the new Iraq is taking shape."

Yet the standoffs with Sadr and in Fallujah have forced the council into action. Individual members are acting as mediators between the U.S. and its Iraqi antagonists in both situations. Sistani's son is playing a role in negotiations as well. "We are very near the edge, but we aren't going to fall over it, that is for sure," reflects Allawi. The Americans still have great strength, both military and economic. Many Iraqis yearn for a peaceful solution. But June 30 is fast approaching. And the Iraqis and Americans have yet to understand each other.

By Stanley Reed

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