Mon, May 24, 2004 - Page 9 News List

No respite likely for US Iraq forces even after power transfer

Whoever takes the reins of an Iraqi regime will be besmirched by the occupiers' favor; as one intellectual says, you can't parachute-in fair representation

REUTERS , LONDON

Iraq's deadly complexities will bedevil US-led forces in the country they have so far failed to pacify, whatever interim government takes over after June 30.

General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, said on Wednesday the post-handover period could become even more violent, perhaps requiring the deployment of more US troops.

Analysts said the new government, whose composition and powers are still uncertain, will struggle for legitimacy, even if it gleans the formal blessing of the United Nations.

Buffeted by Iraqi insurgency and shamed by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, Washington's aim to turn postwar Iraq into a pro-American democratic model for the region looks beyond reach. Militants will relentlessly challenge any bid to portray the June 30 transfer as a real end to US occupation.

"US troops will still be there, with a job to do, but must represent themselves as a background force, not an occupation force, and present the Iraqi police and civil defense corps as frontline forces" said British security analyst Simon Henderson.

"On a quiet day, this is a fiction that can just about work, but there have not been many quiet days recently and one fears there won't be many in future," he said.

Washington, which insists Iraq's fledgling armed forces stay under US command after the handover, might prefer its troops to remain "over the horizon", holding the ring and ensuring that no one seizes power or intimidates the government by force.

But this looks impracticable, given the unreliability of Iraqi forces whose loyalties were split by last month's US military crackdown on Sunni insurgents in Falluja and on Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia in the south.

Abizaid told a Senate hearing the United States might have to increase the 130,000 troops it now has in Iraq. "I would predict ... that the situation will become more violent even after sovereignty because it will remain unclear what's going to happen between the interim government and elections," he said.

Calm returned to Falluja only after a deal that gave control of the city to a local militia led by former officers in Saddam Hussein's army. Clashes with Sadr's fighters in Najaf have alternated with efforts to negotiate a solution, even if that means enlisting his men into an ad hoc force for the holy city.

Iraq historian Charles Tripp said such compromises carried their own dangers in a land where other Shiite and Kurdish militias have been allowed to survive since former president Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

Militias given a security role were unlikely to act simply as a local police force, but would seek political power, carving out turf, extracting money and snuffing out rivals, he said.

"This structure of latent violence is very problematic for those at the centre. Do you root them out in the name of national unity, or try to co-opt them?" Tripp asked.

"It brings violence closer to the surface of politics and we haven't really seen Iraqi politics emerging yet. It has all been under US auspices," he said. "Trying to develop politics in the shadow of gunmen is quite a dangerous recipe."

The interim administration, to be selected by US envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in consultation with the US-led authorities and Iraqi leaders, is expected to organize elections in January for an assembly that will then pick a transitional government.

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