It was a run-of-the-mill weekday in Samarra, Iraq, a large town in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. Guerrilla land mines had exploded that morning in several locations, leaving no U.S. casualties but several Iraqis killed by the American soldiers' return fire. The Americans said the dead Iraqis were guerrillas, townspeople said they were innocent bystanders, and the truth of the matter was hard to find.
In front of the blue-and-white tiled walls of the Imam al-Hadi shrine, crowds of pilgrims and townspeople stepped around the charred and bullet-riddled skeletons of cars that had been caught in crossfire. Across the street, at the entrance to the clothing souq, or marketplace, 30 or so men clustered around me, yelling and denouncing the American occupation as I relayed questions through my translator.
Suddenly the crowd parted and a middle-aged, powerfully built man came to the front, wearing the olive-green uniform and officer's winter jacket of the Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi army -- garb that probably would earn him immediate arrest if he were encountered by U.S. troops. The crowd hushed as he spun into a rant about America and Zionism, sounding very much like Baathist government officials in prewar Iraq. Finally, he paused for breath, and I asked the question that I had come to Iraq to ask: What would bring peace to Iraq?
"Elections," he said, to my surprise. "But real elections, not those that the Americans are planning. And the Americans must withdraw from our cities and not interfere with them."
His demands were eerily similar to those of Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders, archenemies of the Baathists who have led huge street demonstrations denouncing the Americans and calling for elections. It may seem contradictory for these two groups, whose historical attachment to democracy could be charitably described as nil, to be preaching electoral principles to the U.S. government. But among a fast-growing swath of the Iraqi population, "Democracy now!" has become the rallying cry. This pressure for elections has conjured up a nightmare scenario for the White House: the chance of a major delay in plans to carefully stage-manage the transfer of nominal sovereignty to a transitional government by July 1. Islamists, Baathists, and others on Washington's blacklist are predicting the new government will be a mirror image of the Iraqi Governing Council, whose 25 members were handpicked by U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and are viewed by many Iraqis as ineffective American stooges.
In a sign of his disdain for the Bush administration, Iraq's Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has refused to meet with Bremer despite frequent entreaties from the administrator's aides. Under the worst-case scenario, the ayatollah could follow through on his threats to declare the new government illegitimate, a step that could cause his followers to rise up in arms in tandem with the current, Sunni-dominated guerrilla insurgency.
"We are worried that Americans want to control the process and the result and produce another government of puppets like the one we have now," said Sheikh Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, the leader of the al-Zahraa mosque in Sadr City and a top aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand rival of al-Sistani's.
But there's a kind of realpolitik calculation about it all: Shiites calculating that they can win national power and Baathists calculating that they can finally secure their "get out of jail" cards. In Samarra, my uniformed Baathist seemed to want to join the system as well as to fight it. "If the Americans insist that we cannot have the Baath Party anymore with [Hussein] at its head, OK," said the man, as the others listened respectfully. "If they say we should name it some other name, fine. If they say some of our other commanders are prohibited, OK. But we need leaders, and they have taken everyone," -- a reference to the more than 11,000 people being held in U.S. prison camps on suspicion of Baath Party membership or involvement in the guerrilla resistance, and the many other Baathists who are in hiding from the U.S. dragnet. "Allow us a party, a building, a newspaper," he added, his voice turning suddenly soft and wheedling. "Allow us to run in elections. Give us something."
After a year of relentlessly seeking to marginalize the United Nations, George W. Bush is now begging the world body for a rescue. UN officials are fanning out across Iraq to try to negotiate an alternative plan for choosing a new government. When asked if he trusts the United Nations more than the United States, the Baathist raised his eyebrows and looked around the crowd, which listened and nodded. "Maybe yes, maybe no," he said. "Who is the United Nations? Whose orders are they obeying? We don't know."
For UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the dilemma is huge. He is under heavy pressure from the Bush administration to take an active role in brokering a solution in Iraq, yet he is also facing a simmering rebellion from his own staffers and top advisers. The truck bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters last August, which killed 22 people, including mission leader Sergio Vieira de Mello, is often referred to by UN staffers as "our 9-11." Many UN officials privately say the attack might not have occurred if Vieira de Mello had not taken a high-visibility role rallying support for the creation of the Governing Council. "We can't be seen as simply an extension of the Bush administration," said one top aide to Annan at UN headquarters who requested anonymity. "We made that mistake last year and we paid dearly for it."
Now, with UN officials returning to an Iraq protected by U.S. soldiers, they are likely to be seen again as Washington's proxy. "When the United Nations goes back into Iraq, it has got to get there with two things," said Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan's newly appointed special adviser on conflict prevention, in late January on the eve of the mission's departure for Iraq. "One, a clear identity of its own, and two, to go there with only the agenda of the United Nations, which is ... helping the people of Iraq out of their plight. Otherwise it will be of no use to anybody."
But if the Bush administration's policies are failing, it's also unclear whether the Democrats' alternative would succeed. The presidential candidates' plans vary: John Kerry, Howard Dean, and John Edwards advocate a UN takeover of the political side of the occupation and an introduction of foreign soldiers alongside U.S. troops; while Wesley Clark opposes a UN takeover but proposes a new international authority to take political control of Iraq while NATO takes military control. Similar plans have been offered by congressional Democrats such as Senators Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
All the American proposals -- from Bush and the Democrats alike -- share a catch-22: Pacifying Iraq will require broadened international participation and elections, but both of these require a less violent Iraq to be effective. No one has devised a way to defuse the insurgency other than the Bush administration's policy of trying to inflict total military defeat. Instead, all sides seem to have implicitly accepted the administration's strategy of excluding ex-Baathists, radical Sunnis, and radical Shiites from Iraq's power structure -- a policy that seems likely to prolong the armed resistance rather than shorten it.
During a reporting trip to Iraq in December, I interviewed dozens of Shiite leaders, Sunni clerics, and Baathists of all levels in Baghdad and the nearby cities of Falluja, Samarra, and Sadr City. I asked them two simple questions: What would stop the rebellion? And what would persuade them and the guerrillas to give some breathing space to a new foreign coalition? The answers revealed some sharp differences among the groups, but also important points in common. Together, these commonalities suggest a transition plan that could stop most of the guerrilla attacks, allow the introduction of UN civilian and military forces, and facilitate the withdrawal of large numbers of American troops.
Hold full national elections in the second half of 2004 under UN supervision. Elections are opposed by most members of the Iraqi Governing Council, which is not surprising considering that most of the 25 members have no organized support base in Iraq and are totally dependent on American tutelage. If elections are reasonably free and fair, many members and their fledgling parties might be wiped off Iraq's political map.
For months U.S. officials and some Governing Council members have insisted that elections could not be organized in less than two years because there is no reliable census data to create an electoral database. However, this objection has crumbled under attack from many experts. Current Iraqi government officials and UN officials agree that it would be easy to create an electoral roll with the existing database of the food-ration system, which distributes monthly provisions to every Iraqi family.
"The database is comprehensive, extremely detailed, and at least 97 percent accurate, with every safeguard possible to cross-check the records," said Ahmed al-Mukhtar, a Trade Ministry official who is overall director of the ration system. "If you gave me one month and enough paper, I could open registration to anyone who was exiled, allow them to register, and then I would give you a complete electoral roll." Even British occupation officials in southern Iraq have reportedly endorsed this proposal.
In New York, Carina Perelli, director of the UN Electoral Assistance Division, said before her recent return to Iraq that a full elections process could probably be mounted in about six months -- a longer period than is expected by al-Sistani but much shorter than the one predicted by the Americans and their Iraqi allies. "If we are given enough resources and if there is consensus among all sectors of society, we can do it just like we've done it in dozens of other countries," she said. "But those are two big 'ifs.'"
Abandon any open attempts to stack the new government with pro-Western moderates. Even some of the people picked by the United States admit the modus operandi is unfair. "Nobody in this town respects the council, because we were handpicked by the Americans," said Burkan Khalid, a civil engineer who serves on the 22-member city council in Samarra. He had happened across the crowd that surrounded me, and he piped up from the back when the uniformed Baathist finally finished speaking. "We are despised, and the next council chosen by the Americans and their puppets also will be despised," Khalid said. He shook his head and smiled, seeming resigned to his fate.
It's a bitter pill for the Bush administration to swallow, but democracy means that the bad guys should have a fair chance at winning. Because Shiites comprise more than 60 percent of Iraq's population, it's likely that elections could be won by two pro-Iranian Shiite groups, the Islamic Dawa Party or the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Over the past year, these groups' leaders have acted with unexpected moderation as members of the Governing Council. But if the United States continues maneuvering to block them from power, it may push al-Sistani and his followers -- many of whom are more radical than Islamic Dawa or the Supreme Council -- into rebellion.
Allow Baathists to purge their ranks and create a new party. In recent weeks, as the elections-are-impossible argument has weakened, U.S. officials have come up with a new objection: Because of the guerrilla attacks, they claim, the security situation is too unstable to hold elections.
But this excuse, while partially valid, has a solution: re-enfranchisement of the disenfranchised. Most Baathists and Sunni radicals support elections only on the condition that they be granted some form of political rehabilitation. They say they have been virtually disenfranchised by the anti-Baathist purges and counterinsurgency sweeps that have banned tens of thousands of ex-Baathists from government employment and have created huge, Guantanamo-style prison camps holding more than 11,000 Iraqis.
"We will support elections only if we can participate," said a former brigadier general in the Iraqi army who commanded troops on the Baghdad outskirts during last year's war. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the general made clear his sympathy with the guerrillas yet declined to say whether he has any relation to them. Like thousands of other ex-Baathists, the general is in hiding, moving from house to house to evade the U.S. dragnet. He spoke with me at a middle-class Baghdad restaurant, and with his neatly pressed shirt and slacks he looked like any other businessman. He added that he is not on any U.S. most-wanted list as far as he knows, "But they can take you any time, and they can do whatever they want with you."
If Baathists are not rehabilitated, he said, the attacks on Americans will continue. "If we are allowed to choose, and if the United Nations is there to make sure we are not cheated, we will give the new government a chance," he said. "But if there are no real elections, the resistance will be much greater than it is now."
Postwar rehabilitation has worked elsewhere. In Central America, Angola, Mozambique, and the Balkans, the defeated side was given a fair chance to vie for power in a democratic system, and this inclusiveness was a crucial element in cementing the peace.
Start public trials of Saddam Hussein and other top regime officials. Part of the public anti-Baathist fervor derives from the fact that, despite the imprisonment of 11,000 people, none has been tried for a crime or even charged with one. Iraqis are clamoring for justice for the mass killings, tortures, and other abuses of Hussein's dictatorship. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have advocated the creation of an international tribunal to try Hussein and other officials accused of crimes against humanity. But the Bush administration, in keeping with its long hostility toward world tribunals such as the International Criminal Court, has insisted on trials presided by Iraqi judges. Meanwhile, the U.S. military seems reluctant to release any of its prisoners to the Iraqi courts.
Give the United Nations overall control of the Iraqi transition process, even though not all attacks will cease. Baathists insist that the United Nations is not the enemy, despite the terrorist bombings in August and September that caused it to flee the country. "If the United Nations is acting by itself, and not just on behalf of the Americans, it will be welcomed," said a former high-ranking Foreign Ministry official. "When I see a blue helmet, it's totally different from seeing an American helmet, even psychologically. If the United Nations took over from the Americans, it would create a new atmosphere."
Many Baathists whom I interviewed took pains to explain that the guerrillas are not terrorists and do not seek the return of Saddam Hussein to power. But these Baathists only grudgingly admitted the obvious -- that there are indeed real extremists among the resistance, including foreign jihadis who may continue using terrorist attacks under any circumstances. When pressed, the Baathists gave varying estimates for how much the violence would decrease if their demands were addressed. "Maybe 60 percent?" said a former Republican Guard colonel in Baghdad, flummoxed by the question. "I don't know. Maybe 90 percent? We can't guarantee everything."
Call up the former Iraqi army and security agencies. Among nearly all Sunnis and even among many U.S. officials, there is general consensus that the American decision soon after the war to disband the Iraqi army and security services was a disaster. The move put about 500,000 people out of work, and even though many of them are now receiving stop-gap payments from the coalition authorities, they are a dissatisfied, armed, and dangerous group, with plenty of time on their hands to cause trouble.
"We had a policy in the army that if you didn't have anything for your soldiers to do, you should march them around and make them dig holes and fill them up again all day until they're too tired to do anything but go to bed," said the former Iraqi general. "Just keep them busy, otherwise they'll make trouble. The Americans don't understand this." The Republican Guard colonel agrees. "If you call back the army, in one week you will recruit 200,000 people," he said. "If there are bad people you want to keep out, you can do it afterward."
Any move to reconstitute the military and security services would be needed only in the Sunni Triangle area, and would need to be subject to rigorous vetting. Many Shiite and Kurdish leaders are strongly opposed to the idea, and instead support the creation of militias that they control. All these forces should be incorporated into a new Iraqi army, run on a decentralized, regional basis yet with overall central command in Baghdad.
Keep U.S. troops out of main Sunni cities and replace them with foreign troops, preferably from non-neighboring Arab and Muslim nations. Despite their recent anti-American protests, Shiites are less implacably hostile to the presence of American troops than Sunni radicals and Baathists. For that reason, it is not urgent to replace the Americans with foreigners in southern Iraq. In the Sunni Triangle, however, the overwhelming majority of people say they want the U.S. troops to get out of the cities and towns (although they seem not to care if there are bases just over the horizon).
"People here hate the American troops, but only because they are here in town doing things they shouldn't," said Abdelkader al-Alousy, a Sunni cleric who is spokesman for the Center for Religious Teaching and Research, a religious institute in Falluja, and director of its Higher Commission for Fatwas, which issues religious edicts. "The Americans can have bases out in the desert if they want. Just get them out of the streets here. Then people will stop attacking them."
UN officials say they expect that Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Bangladesh would be willing to send large numbers of troops under a Security Council mandate if the arrangement appeared to have support among Baathists, radical Sunnis, and dissident Iraqi Shiites.
In all, the above set of possible solutions represents a big policy gamble. Elections could bring to power Shiite groups that have long been allied with Iran (but now insist that they adhere to democracy). Baathist groups could win local and regional elections in the Sunni Triangle. Campaigning could bring ethnic tensions and riots, with Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and secular urban dwellers at one another's throats.
But given the intractable guerrilla insurgency and the poisonous lack of public trust in U.S. intentions, the Bush administration's current policy is an even greater gamble. The result could be intensified violence and chaos that traps the next president, be it Bush or a Democrat, in a virtually inextricable quagmire. To expect Iraqis to forego real self-determination and allow a handpicked government to be imposed on them -- at a time when their expectations for democracy have been raised sky high -- could invite more sacrifice of American blood and prestige.