Wednesday, April 23, 2003

As Iraqi Shiite demands for a dominant role in Iraq's future mount, Bush administration officials say they underestimated the Shiites' organizational strength and are unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government in the country.

As the administration plotted to overthrow Hussein's government, U.S. officials said this week, it failed to fully appreciate the force of Shiite aspirations and is now concerned that those sentiments could coalesce into a fundamentalist government....

That's from today's Washington Post. The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that "Iranian-trained agents have crossed into southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and are working in the cities of Najaf, Karbala and Basra to promote friendly Shiite clerics and advance Iranian interests." Dilip Hiro says in a Times op-ed that the current power vacuum in Iraq

is reminiscent of what happened in Iran in February 1979. The 440,000-strong military of the pro-American shah disintegrated quickly, as did the police force and the Savak, the notorious secret police. Into that vacuum stepped the Islamic Revolutionary Komitehs, run by Shiite clerics operating from the local mosques. The Komitehs took over not only law enforcement but also such essential chores as distributing heating oil to households in wintry Tehran. Many groups took part in toppling the shah; but it was the nationwide religious network and the unified actions of the mullahs that enabled them to to become his successor.

Why was religious fervor in Iraq so unimaginable, to this of all administrations? When David Koresh's compound went up in flames, I found it hard to understand how an administration with a president, vice president, and attorney general all from the South, the epicenter of fire and brimstone, could fail to grasp that a fervidly religious guy might really mean it when he suggested that he was willing to go up in flames. Maybe the fact that Clinton, Gore, and Reno were all fairly secular in outlook explains this. But what excuse is there for the Bushies, with their White House Bible studies and other great shows of religiosity? Why couldn't they read intelligence reports and recognize that a lot of Iraqis would press for a future that was rather, shall we say, faith-based?

Perhaps, to the Bushies, religion has less to do with fervor and spirit than with being an effective manager; maybe those Bible studies are just God-bothering Rotary Clubs, places where like-minded men gather to do business, secure in the knowledge that God wants them to prosper.

Of course, the Bushies also seem to have overlooked Shi'ite fervor because they thought their boy Ahmed Chalabi would suffice. As the Washington Post story notes:

"They really did believe he is a Shiite leader," although he had been out of the country for 45 years, a U.S. official said. "They thought, 'We're set, we've got a Shiite -- check the box here.' "

For a sign of just how much the U.S. is counting on Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, read what Joshua Micah Marshall has to say today.

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