March 7, 2004
MILES TO GO

The Road Ahead May Be Even Rougher

By JOHN F. BURNS

BAGHDAD — Somewhere in Iraq, emblematic of all America has accomplished here, Saddam Hussein sits imprisoned under military guard, awaiting trial for the years when he was the malevolent colossus who chilled every Iraqi's soul.

But if he knows anything about the world beyond his cell, the past week may have brought Mr. Hussein grim consolation, for what it revealed about the troubles now roiling the country. A month from the anniversary of the dictator's fall, the American project to replace him with the Middle East's first functioning democracy is in new peril, and the road ahead may yet be more hazardous than the distance already traveled.

It was a week that bared just how far Iraq remains from the ideals proclaimed by President Bush as he prepared to go to war last March. It began and ended with painful evidence for the Americans that even the Iraqis it identified as its most reliable allies, the 25 people who sit on the advisory body known as the Iraqi Governing Council, could not agree on the basics of a temporary constitution, the first big step by Iraqis toward a lasting redefinition of their country.

As well, there were the suicide bombings on Tuesday that killed at least 180 Iraqi Shiite worshipers, the deadliest day since the overthrow of Mr. Hussein. If the bombers sought to sow civil war between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority, as American officials suggested, they failed - but in ways that raised more doubts about the ability to establish anything of lasting value here that would be worth the American sacrifice.

In Baghdad and Karbala, angry survivors of the bombings shouted their curses not against Sunni militants who have stamped the past year with violence, but against America and Israel. Incoherent as that seemed to an outsider, the fury suggested that on the Iraqi street, the old enmities, not the new possibilities, still dictate.

On Washington's timetable, the Governing Council was to have adopted an interim constitution by Feb. 28 to guide the country until an elected government, under a permanent, popularly endorsed constitution, takes power at the end of 2005. After weeks of wrangling, the council approved a draft a day late, but it slipped away again on Friday, when Shiite council members raised new demands just as the signing ceremony was convening.

As the exhausted Americans sat down to new negotiations, Iraqis who had barely bothered to turn on their television sets for the signing shrugged, as if to say that the success or failure of the push for democracy was, to them, largely a matter of indifference.

For most Iraqis, it seemed what mattered were the suicide bombings, which sent ripples of new anti-American feelings across the country, just at the moment when the United States most needs Iraqis to support the American project for their future.

Hard as it is for Americans to comprehend, many Iraqis, at least at times of stress, resort to a vehement distrust, a hatred even, for the country that rid them of the dictator who sent hundreds of thousands to their graves.

Fathoming why this should be is a diviner's art. At rest, in their homes, when Westerners broach the subject, Iraqis commonly say that the last thing they want is a precipitate American troop withdrawal.

But on the streets, where political sentiment forms and gathers momentum, the mood seems far different. Partly, no doubt, this is a legacy of the chaos that arose in the early weeks of the occupation - and of the deaths that Iraqis, far more often than American soldiers, have sustained from the violence since last summer. But partly, too, it is something rooted in a collective psyche so battered by Mr. Hussein's terror that authority is instinctively blamed and distrusted, that rumor and conspiracy theory crowd out facts, that acts of good will are seen as ill intent.

Anybody seeking evidence of this had only to stand in a narrow street leading to the Khadamiya mosque in Baghdad after the suicide bombings on Tuesday, and see how American medics trying to reach the carnage were driven back amid a hail of stones and abuse.

Just as telling are the conversations with Iraqis, every day, in which they say they have lost faith in America because it promised much, and delivered nothing.

In these exchanges, it is unprofitable for a Westerner to list the undertakings - rebuilding oil refineries, power plants, sewage treatment facilities, waterways, bridges, ports, railways, schools, clinics and much else - that have already cost American taxpayers about $5 billion and will soon begin consuming the $18.4 billion voted by Congress last fall for the second, three-year phase of reconstruction.

"The Americans have done nothing for us," runs the mantra, as if proper patriotism requires it.

Mr. Bush's decision to accelerate the turning over of sovereignty to the Iraqis was presented, in November, as a response to pressures from Iraqi leaders.

But officials close to the American civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, say privately that the decision owed at least as much to political pressures in the United States last fall, as Americans were taking the occupation's heaviest losses - 81 killed in November alone.

Since then, casualties have fallen sharply, even as losses among Iraqi civilians and police officers have risen.

No Iraqi politician will say publicly that it would have been better to wait for democratic habits to root - what one Governing Council member, Muwaffak al-Rubaie, referred to last week as "learning a technique that is new to us, the one called compromise."

But Iraqi moderates acknowledge quietly that the greater wisdom might have been to take more time. In effect, these critics say, the Americans and the Iraqis they chose as partners have been asked to push heavy political freight, fast, across what amounts to a rickety bridge.

Last week's turmoil in the Governing Council was a token of how tricky an exercise that may be.

Members were picked from groups considered to be pro-American, or at least pragmatic, and for their professed commitment to democracy.

But even among the relative moderates who make up the council, many of them returned exiles with long experience of living in the West, crucial differences proved unbridgeable.

Faced with missing the initial deadline for the interim constitution, Mr. Bremer and his British deputy, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, agreed to allow the Iraqis to punt on issues that will now be left to the more contentious forum of electoral politics - if not to the guns of the rival parties' militias.

The document that was tentatively agreed on, then at least temporarily derailed on Friday, included provisions for a separation of powers, elections and a bill of rights.

But it said nothing about how an interim government is to be constructed after June 30, when the United States turns over sovereignty to the Iraqis; the document set no rules for elections, and it was dangerously vague on Islam's relation to the state.

Likewise, it was evasive on how and when ethnic and religious militias, which could wreck a future Iraqi state, are to be integrated into a national guard.

It endorsed minority demands for federalism, but was silent on issues crucial to the Kurds.

It provided for an awkward executive authority, a president with two deputies, and left amorphous the question of where ultimate executive power would lie.

Behind these fudges lay a central quandary: How an Iraq ruled by the Sunni Muslim minority since 1921 could be reconstructed so as to transfer power to the Shiite majority without provoking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

Among American officials who profess confidence in America's course here, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite cleric who is the most influential Iraqi figure, is often cited as a force for stability despite his flow of religious decrees that have pushed Shiite leaders on the Governing Council to ever more ambitious and impatient demands.

But it was his pressure, these leaders on the council said, that caused the last-minute holdup in approving the interim constitution.

For now, most Iraqis still seem to believe that an overriding patriotism will push the Shiite and Sunni leaders, as well as rival groups within each camp, toward the compromises needed to avoid wider violence as the political processes launched by the Americans gather pace.

If they are right, the United States enterprise here could still achieve something of lasting benefit to Iraq.

But if they are wrong, the Americans could face a darkening path, to an uncertain and hazardous end.