No Other Option
April 08, 2004
The Wall Street Journal
In the past 10 days, the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Iraq as a stable, democratic state has fallen into crisis. The most alarming aspect is not the Baathist-inspired violence in Fallujah, bloody and horrific though that fighting has been. This has been a limited uprising from the minority Sunni section of the country, many of whose politicians have now entered the peaceful political game. It does not threaten the overall viability of the political transition.
The Shiite uprising that began a few days ago is another story. Scholars and historians of Iraq have long warned that an uprising among the Shiite would spell doom for the coalition, and for any hope of peaceful transition. We are not yet facing a generalized Shiite resistance. Rather, we are locked in a confrontation with a ruthless young thug, Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads an Iranian-backed, fascist political movement that spouts a shallow mix of Islamist and nationalist slogans in a bid to conquer power.
Among most Shiites -- including, crucially, Iraq's most widely revered religious leader, Ayatollah Sistani -- Sadr is a reviled figure. A crude man with no religious qualifications or positive political program, he has used coercion and intimidation as a substitute for genuine religious authority. Yet since the coalition began a crackdown on his organization 10 days ago, Sadr has maneuvered brilliantly to portray himself as the leader of a broader nationalist and Islamist insurgency. Now, growing numbers of marginalized young Iraqi men -- including some Sunni elements -- are rallying to his cause.
If we do not confront this new resistance in a politically agile and militarily forceful and adept manner, everything we have done to help Iraqis rebuild their country as a democracy could unravel in a matter of weeks.
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The democratic transition is moving forward in many inspiring ways. With U.S. assistance, civil society is organizing, political parties are beginning to mobilize, and hundreds of "democracy dialogues" are discussing the country's constitutional structure and future. Two U.N. teams are consulting with Iraqis on how to structure the interim government that will assume power on June 30, and how to administer the elections for a transitional government, due by December or January. However, elections can only go forward and the transition succeed if the agents and means of violence are brought under control.
Underlying the current upsurge in violence has been the problem posed by heavily armed militias in the Shiite south. Loyal to political parties and religious militants; riven by factional divides; determined to impose an Iranian-style theocratic dictatorship; and lavishly armed, funded, and encouraged by various power factions in Iran, these Islamist militias (as well as Sunni and Kurdish militias in the north) have been casting a long shadow over the political process in Iraq. In many provinces, the militia fighters outnumber and certainly outgun the new Iraqi armed forces.
Unless the militias are demobilized and disarmed, a transition to democracy in Iraq will become impossible. Rather, at every step of the way -- from the formation of parties, to the registration of voters, to the election campaign, to the casting and counting of votes -- the democratic process will be desecrated by fear and fraud.
Key officials within the Coalition Provisional Authority have begun to recognize the urgency of this issue. Over the last three months, a plan has been negotiated for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of all the major militias. But this plan, which relies heavily on financial and employment incentives for voluntary compliance by the militias, can only work if all the militias are disarmed. Those forces that will not negotiate and cooperate must be confronted and disarmed by force.
This brings us to the events of the last week, to the person of Muqtada al-Sadr, and to the biggest, most ruthless militia that stands indefatigably outside any process of voluntary disarmament. Sadr knows how to mobilize and intimidate, and in recent months, his militia -- the al-Mahdi Army -- has been growing alarmingly in size, muscle and daring. They have seized public buildings, beaten up professors, taken over classrooms, forced women to wear the hijab, and set up illegal sharia courts and imposed their own brutal penalties. All of this street action and thuggery is meant to create the sense of an unstoppable force, and to strike absolute fear into the hearts of people who would be so naïve as to think they could shape public policy and power relations by peaceful, democratic means.
In recent weeks, Sadr's propaganda, both in his oral statements and through his weekly newspaper, Hawza, have become increasingly incendiary, propagating the most outrageous lies (for example, that the U.S. was responsible for recent deadly bombings) deliberately designed to provoke popular violence. On March 28, after months of costly delay, the coalition finally began to move against him. Ambassador Paul Bremer ordered the closure of Hawza, and Sadr reacted by ordering his followers to rise up violently. Perhaps in response, the coalition ordered the arrest on April 4 of a senior Sadr aide, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, and 24 others -- including Sadr himself -- for the murder last year of an ayatollah, Abdel Majid al-Khoei.
Now there is no turning back. If any kind of decent, democratic and peaceful political order is to be possible in Iraq, the coalition will need to arrest Sadr, crush his attempt to seize power by force, and dismantle his Mahdi army.
We are now embarked on a dangerous and bloody campaign in which, tragically, many more American, other coalition, and Iraqi lives will be lost. But if we do not confront this military challenge now -- while we work to rebuild a broader consensus among Iraqi political forces on the rules of the game and the shape of the new political system -- we will lose the second war for Iraq, with frightening implications not only for the peace and stability of that country and the wider region, but for our own national security.
Mr. Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has served as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. http://online.wsj.com/public/us