Thursday, April 24, 2003

# Posted 9:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LIONS AND TIGERS AND SHI'ITES, OH MY! On Monday, the WaPo ran a front page headline that read "Officials Argue for Fast U.S. Exit From Iraq." On Wednesday, it ran a front page headline that read "U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites". Coincidence? I think not.

As one might expect, these stories reflect the input of anonymous "senior officials in the White House and Pentagon" (Mon.) and "Bush administration officials" (Wed). While I firmly support the practice of anonymous quotation, there are times when it becomes problematic. After all, wouldn't it be convenient for those who want the US out of Iraq as fast as possible to play up the intensity and unexpected nature of Shi'ite resentment?

To be fair, there are indications in the text of the WaPo articles that they do not quote the same officials. First of all, the identification of Monday's officials as "senior" is significant. Next comes the fact that the first quotation in the Wednesday article comes from a State Department official, not a White House or Pentagon man.

In addition, that same article observes that "Some administration officials were dazzled by Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi exile who is a Shiite and an advocate of a secular democracy." Thanks to the passive voice, it's impossible to tell whether this sentence paraphrases the opinion of "some administration officials" or whether it is a semi-factual observation made by the article's authors. Either way, the firm anti-Chalabi spin on this point suggests that it also has its origins in the State Department.

The important thing, I think, is not to overplay Shi'ite antagonism to the American occupation. Today, the front page of the WaPo tells us that "Iraqi Shiites Grow Uneasy Over U.S. Occupation; Cleric Says Americans Must Leave". Take a closer look at the evidence, though, and you'll see that this story is just a reincarnation of journalists' refusal to believe that Iraqis appreciate their liberation.

According to the Post, an anti-occupation "statement by Abdul Aziz Hakim, one of a variety of clergy vying for power among Shiites in Iraq, was another sign of growing unease among Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority over U.S. intentions." Strikingly, the WaPo's correspondent don't think to ask whether Hakim is playing up his anti-American stance because he is "vying for power". If memory serves, Middle Eastern politicians occasionally resort to disingenuous anti-Americanism in order to fire up emotions and deflect criticism of their other shortcomings.

In this case, Hakim has good reason to deflect attention from the fact (which the Post duly notes) that he is the brother of SCIRI's Teheran-based leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim. This is a classic of Middle Eastern politics: hide your own flawed nationalist credentials by attacking the United States. Thus, for the Post to call Hakim's words an indication of "growing unease" among Shi'ites is questionable to say the least.

Thankfully, US officials don't seem prone to rush to conclusions as fast as the media has. As Jay Garner said,
"I think the bulk of the Shia, the majority of the Shia, are very glad they are where they are right now...Two weeks ago they wouldn't have been able to demonstrate."
Exactly. There is every reason to believe that most Iraqi Shi'ites are greatful for their liberation. In fact, many indigenous Shi'ite clerics are open to working with the United States. What we have to watch out for are the ambitious men with friends in Teheran.

One important strategy for winning Shi'ite support has nothing do with religion. It has to do with reconstruction. According to the lede of another front page story in Wednesday's WaPo,
In a milestone of sorts, Baghdadis have begun shooting their automatic rifles in celebration rather than anger as electricity is gradually restored to one neighborhood after another in a darkened city noisy with generators.
If we move fast on the reconstruction front, Iraqis of all denominations will recognize that an American presence serves their own immediate interests, in the short-run and possibly over an extended period of time.

What's also important to recognize is that the United States shares a critical interest even with the most provocative Shi'ites leaders. We want to leave and they want us to leave. Clearly, there is reason to suspect that some Shi'ite leaders want the Americans out so that they can establish their own theocratic dictatorship. That is why, rather than getting defensive when the legitimacy of our presence is challenged, we ought to demand that all those who challenge it specify what they want to replace it with.

If the radical fundamentalists have to admit exactly what it is they are after, I expect they will lose considerable support. In order to make that happen, what the United States has to do is prevent the radicals from assuming the mantle of Iraqi nationalism. But if we don't get defensive and continually remind the people of Iraq that we want to leave as well, it shouldn't be all that hard.

Of course, the way to make clear that we are serious about leaving is not by having "senior administration officials" share their thoughts with WaPo reporters. That kind of diplomacy undercuts American authority by emboldening anti-American politicians without having an impact on Iraqi public opinion. What we need are clear statements from Jay Garner (which we seem to have) and, more importantly, from the President.

UPDATE: Kos misses the anti-Chalabi spin of Wednesday's Post article.
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