A chain reaction of chaos has started in the country that only an international peace conference can stop

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov)-Whether a country supported the war in Iraq or opposed it seems to be of little significance for the country that has now erupted in anger. The population's hatred is now directed against any foreigners. End of story.

On Monday, Iraqi extremists abducted a group of Russian specialists from an energy company who were rebuilding Baghdad's electricity grid. A dozen Chinese citizens had been kidnapped earlier, though they were later released. The kidnappers did not care that Russia and China had made some of the most vigorous efforts to curtail the United States in its armed intervention in Iraq.

Foreigners? Then be prepared for knife to your throat.

Yesterday's events came as further proof that a kind of military and political Chernobyl has exploded in Iraq. Moreover, a humanitarian disaster has broken out that cannot be controlled by anyone, not least the coalition forces. Like circles on water, or to be precise blood, it is ominously expanding.

The United States as the occupying power is failing to fulfil its obligations set out in UN Security Council resolution 1483. The US forces are besieging entire towns, bombing residential districts and using banned bombs. The explosions even destroy mosques' domes. In short, in the language of international documents, we are witnessing a disproportionate use of force.

The Iraqi tragedy in recent days shows how international law is being ripped apart. The strong are recklessly destroying and punishing the weak.

The strong cannot be justified, but they can be understood. The Iraqi population's revolt is Washington's worst nightmare and it has now come true. We need to return to the end of last week to understand what lies behind the current escalation of violence.

The Americans made a gross mistake when they closed a leading Shiite newspaper, which they considered to be oppositionist, and arrested a close associate of the radical Shiite cleric, Maktad al-Sadr. In so doing, the occupying authorities did exactly what they should not have done - they created a victim with their own hands.

The consultants of Paul Bremer, the US administration head in Baghdad, forgot to explain one thing to their boss, i.e., that the Shiites see their religion as one of martyrdom and almost a cult of the victim, the basis of which is to take the holy fight to the very end. As soon as great martyrs appear, the majority of the Shiite population will consolidate around them.

Last year, the moderate politician Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani led the Shiites. He was ready to conduct talks with the occupying forces about adopting a constitution and the provisional government, which should receive power on June 30.

Now, al-Sistani, who has departed for Iran, has been replaced by the suffering al-Sadr. Thousands of Shiites have rallied round him, rising in a wave of resistance. As the country is 60% made up of Shiites, their revolt had seized the entire country within five days.

It was a repeat of Iran 1979. The Iranian revolution began with three or four Shiites being shot, and then followed the famous events under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Today, the Americans are making the Iranian mistake. They have started with repression. They are trying to deal with the idea of martyrdom with force, i.e., by throwing fuel on the fire.

In an attempt to conceal his confusion, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has announced that the US will not back down and is preparing to send another expeditionary force to Iraq. The American military authorities have also announced that al-Sadr is a wanted man and are barely keeping their handcuffs at bay.

Accordingly, an entirely new front has opened up in Iraq: the Shiite-Sunni revolt against the occupiers, inspired by revenge for what their believers see as a victim.

In his time, Che Guevara called on anti-imperialists to give the United States "two, three and many Vietnams". The prophecy of the revolutionary, it seems, has come true. The American generals in Iraq now have to face two, three and many armies.

And these fighters are led by an army of foreign Islamists and terrorists, who sweep up everyone else behind them and dream of disrupting the June handover of power. For in this case, the US would sooner or later leave Iraq, maintaining the vestiges of honour, or at the very least without any obvious disgrace. However, the Islamic radicals need something completely different: they need to rout and shame America on Iraqi soil.

The results of the first days of the Iraqi Chernobyl cannot be found in figures - 70 coalition soldiers and 700 Iraqis dead - but in more general categories.

Conclusion number one: The United States has not succeeded in implementing the Roman principle of divide and rule. The Shiites have united with their religious opponents - the Sunnis - and formed a united front against the occupying forces.

Conclusion number two: the USA has fallen into the Iraqi trap. The US forces cannot leave Iraq, as this would be tantamount to a death sentence for the neo-conservative wing in George Bush's team, which is the faction that pushed the president to pursue the violent "democratisation" of the Middle East. The withdrawal of the troops would also force America to vote against Bush in November.

On the other hand, any move to send new US contingents of between 100,000 and 300,000 troops to Iraq, which is being increasingly actively advocated in Washington, would leave the US merely digging a deeper hole for itself.

Conclusion number three: Iraq is now in danger of breaking up. In the wake of Desert Storm, George Bush Sr. decided against moving on Baghdad because it meant risking the country's disintegration. Did his reckless son take this lesson on board?

The coming days will be decisive for how the situation in Iraq develops. The main dilemma is the following: will the Americans insist on pursuing their hard-armed tactics of crushing the opposition, deploying military units in line with the Vietnam scenario or will they open a dialogue with the very same opposition? Much depends on the will of the international community here, including, to a great extent, Russia.

Moscow proposal is the following: to call an international conference on Iraq featuring all the influential Iraqi leaders, including opposition representatives, and under the aegis of the UN as soon as possible. The leaders of the ethnic communities from neighbouring countries - Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - should also be invited.

The conference's main subject should be international law. The forum would have to confirm a scenario to hand over power to a legitimate, representative government of Iraq. The final date for elections will have to be set, too.

If these efforts to explain to the United States that there is a solution to the crisis succeed, then the Iraqi Chernobyl might well be extinguished.

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