Arab Rulers' Worst Fears on Iraq Come True


By Samia Nakhoul

April 7, 2004

As U.S. forces battle on a new front in Iraq, Baghdad's Arab neighbors watch the escalating violence with alarm and a message that affords them only the grimmest satisfaction: "We told you so." Arab leaders had said loudly and repeatedly that a U.S. war against Saddam Hussein would unleash chaos in multi-ethnic Iraq and the region and open a Pandora's box of radicalism.

With U.S.-led forces now battling Shi'ite Muslims in several cities, they now feel their ominous prophecy has come true. The leaders fear that clashes between Shi'ites loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and occupation forces could lead to civil war -- and spill over their borders. "This is what we've been warning about. We told the Americans Saddam Hussein was only five percent of the problem. The other 95 percent just wasn't visible to them," a Gulf Arab diplomat said. "It's a very dangerous situation. It's painful."

Qatar, a staunch U.S. ally, said it feared civil war could break out in Iraq and that the country was becoming a "fertile ground for (various) terrorists." "The developments in Iraq are alarming and we fear that we are facing a civil war in Iraq like Afghanistan and Lebanon," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said. "We cannot leave Iraq in this state because this disease will spread and I believe the situation is out of control."

U.S. troops in Iraq, under attack for a year by Sunni Muslims and Saddam loyalists, now risk a major conflict with the Shi'ite majority. They had been seen as allies in their opposition to Saddam, who brutally suppressed them. Fighting between U.S.-led forces and Sadr's supporters flared after the administration arrested one of his aides and closed a militant newspaper. It has spread since the authorities then vowed to arrest 30-year-old Sadr in connection with the killing of a Shi'ite cleric last year. His group denies any involvement in the killing.

Iraq Quagmire

"The Americans appear to be sinking into the Iraqi quagmire. I dread to think about the repercussions on the region in case Iraq disintegrates into wider chaos," said a Jordanian official who declined to be identified. Arab leaders worry that if the United States falters and Iraq degenerates they will be left with a failed state spreading instability and terror through the region. "There are seeds for civil war. The ingredients are there -- the trigger and the explosive -- and this is bringing us nearer to civil war. There are three levels, Arabs against Kurds, Shi'ites against Sunnis and everyone against the United States," said Mustafa Alani, of London's Royal United Services Institute.

"If there is war between the Shi'ites and Sunnis, then other countries, especially Iran, will decide at (some) stage to put in their weight and this will encourage other countries to do so too, like what happened in Lebanon," he added.

Violence between Shi'ites and U.S. forces has led to suggestions that more troops might be sent in, but President Bush insists a transitional Iraqi government will take power as planned on June 30.

Jinxed Iraq

Soli Ozel, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said: "If Iraq falls apart, other states will start backing their own groups and will suck everyone in. "I believe the genie is out of the bottle," he added.

Western diplomats say regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is troubled by its lack of leverage over events in its northern neighbor and fears the violence could have an impact on Sunni militants as well as incite the Saudi Shi'ite minority. Western observers say militants continue to travel between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which has come to be seen as a training ground for fighters who may one day return home to take on authorities in the kingdom, already battling a wave of violence by followers of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The first sign of Saudi Shi'ite demands came last year, just weeks after Saddam's fall, when 450 Shi'ite figures presented a petition for more rights. There is also concern that Shi'ites in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, where they are a majority, might also be spurred by the rising power of those in Iraq. And analysts say if that was not enough, increased Kurdish power in Iraq has already created ripples, with unrest last month among Kurdish minorities in neighboring Syria and Iran.

Many analysts say that arresting Sadr would not halt Iraq's Shi'ite uprising, saying the cause of the revolt was not the cleric, but U.S. policy. "Moqtada al-Sadr's remarkable ability to mobilize opposition reflects the large scale frustration with this policy," said Egyptian analyst Mohamed al-Sayed Said. "We have a complete mess, a series of mistakes committed by the Americans."

One of those, said Middle East expert Khairallah Khairallah, was the U.S. decision to demobilize thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police, leaving many armed youths jobless and free to join Sadr's militia. "The general situation in Iraq overall is jinxed. ... The question is how or will they (the Americans) be able to transfer power to Iraqis," said Kuwaiti academic Shamlan el-Issa. (Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Riyadh, Ghaida Ghantous in Qatar, Tom Perry in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Inal Ersan in Damascus and Noora Mahfouz in Kuwait)

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