The USA has promised to hand over control of the country to the Iraqis by July 1, 2004. But nobody can guarantee that the transition will be effected on time, if at all. If the security situation in Iraq deteriorates seriously, the Americans may go back on their promise.
But if the restoration of Iraq continues to go badly and the resistance exceeds the admissible level, the Americans may leave the country, turning over control to the Iraqis they think they can trust. It would be similar to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan at the time of Najibullah: everyone remembers what happened to Najibullah as a result.
As of now, the situation in Iraq is not favourable for either the Americans or Iraqis. The arrest of Saddam Hussein has not stemmed the resistance, which is logical, as it was never controlled from a single centre and the role of the former president and Baath party in organising it should not be overestimated. It is impossible to say, in each individual case, if the Americans and British are fighting the remaining groups of the Baath regime or religious fanatics, tribal groups, criminal gangs, or groups of Iraqis out for personal or collective revenge for the deaths of their relatives.
The absence of a harsh regime, which the population would fear, is not a positive but a negative thing in the eyes of common Iraqis, who therefore do not fear the occupying forces. No wonder that resistance to the foreign presence keeps growing in Iraq. The sooner local governments are created, the quicker this resistance will become organised.
The majority of Iraqis view the coalition forces as occupiers. Even those Iraqi leaders who have sympathy for the Americans and British do not intend to remain their clients forever.
The power which any Iraqi politicians gain under the patronage of any foreign military presence, be it American, Japanese or Polish, will not be legitimate for the Iraqis.
The situation will not change even if the political settlement is turned over to the UN, if only because the possibilities of that organisation are rather limited. Besides, Washington will resist the enlargement of the UN role in Iraq because the USA is not the leading power in the UN, where decisions depend on the opinion of Third World (read: Islamic) countries. Logically, the Americans do not want to bow to their decisions.
Not just US scepticism but also the open desire of the Iraqi Shiite leaders to involve the UN in the settlement of the Iraqi problem show that the real role of the UN in Iraq will be very small.
The weakness of the UN will allow the local leaders to do what they want, while formally remaining under international protection and preventing any interference in their internal conflicts.
The Shias also hope that the UN will support their idea to hold direct elections. However, while demanding this voting procedure, the Shias are promoting not democratic principles but their own interests. Constituting the majority of the population in Iraq, they will ensure victory for their parties in this case.
The Shiite demand for direct elections is a problem for the Americans. Not that it would be organisationally difficult to hold such elections now, as the official version reads. The trouble is that direct suffrage by secret ballot in the Middle East and Africa does not result in a victory for democracy and respect for the rights of minorities in the representative bodies of power, but in the seizure of power by the largest and more aggressive group of population (the Shias in Iraq). The winners will immediately use their newly acquired possibilities for the physical extermination of their rivals.
It was not by chance that Saddam Hussein ruled the country dictatorially. Any direct suffrage by secret ballot in Iraq would inevitably disrupt the fragile ethnic-confessional balance in its power structures.
The Shias will hardly give up the chance of gaining power for the first time in the history of Iraq. (To this day, Iraq has always been ruled by Sunnis.) It is also apparent that the Shias' demands will not be satisfied. Hence, they will either rise en masse against the coalition forces or instigate a civil war in Iraq, whose first signs are already discernible. Clashes between Kurds and Turkomans, Kurds and Arabs are becoming more frequent, while problems in Shias' relations with Sunnis and Christians are piling up.
It should be remembered also that the Iraqi Shias are supported by Iran. But Tehran will hardly interfere militarily in the Shias' confrontation with the Anglo-American coalition because the Iranian leadership is too busy tackling internal problems and is not prepared to enter into a direct confrontation with the USA. However, Iran can render moral and possibly economic assistance to the Iraqi Shias, which would create major problems for the coalition.
The current developments in Iraq have been predicted by many experts and discussed with the US leadership more than once. But the trouble is that many American politicians had a distorted view of the situation in Iraq.
The situation in Iraq could have remained stable if Saddam Hussein's removal from power had not affected the ruling elite. The Americans made a mistake in not preserving a firm power-base in Iraq when they could not replace it with their own rule. They tried to reconstruct a political regime created thousands of kilometres away from Iraq in a different historical era in a country that is not ready for such experiments.
Western mechanisms are ineffective in the East. Trying to enforce them is like using the methods of Western supermarkets on an Oriental political bazaar.
The US operation in Iraq could have been successful if the Americans had kept the country on a short leash for a long time, sufficient for the development of a new generation of Iraqi politicians who would not remember Saddam but would look up at the USA. Only after that would it be logical to turn power over to the Iraqis.
But the USA can hardly maintain the occupation for a long time. The US media keep reporting the number of difficulties and losses of the coalition troops in Iraq that is impossible to grasp after WWII.
It is not clear how the US public, which has become aware of its strength since Vietnam, will react to the growing reports about the death of Americans in Iraq (the number of casualties is bound to increase).
Besides, public opinion in the West is being told that the Americans are using the mechanisms of power created by Saddam Hussein instead of bringing democracy to the country. This will not encourage the USA to pursue a harsh policy in Iraq, though it would have been the only correct way of settling the situation.
Authoritarianism is the only stable power in the Middle East today. It can be moderate or harsh, bordering on totalitarianism or sliding to religious theocracy, but authoritarianism it must be.
It would most probably suit the USA if a new Saddam came to power in Iraq, but a Saddam who, though taking into account the anti-Western sentiments of the bulk of his population, would maintain open relations with the West.