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Iraq: One year later

By
CLAUDE SALHANI

WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- Saturday will mark the first anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Looking back, it's hard to believe that only a year has elapsed since American and British forces jumped into action to oust Saddam Hussein, enforce regime change and uncover his weapons of mass destruction.

Well, at least the first two parts of the mission were accomplished.

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Regardless, much has transpired in the last 365 days. Iraq was invaded and occupied. Saddam was overthrown and nine months later, found and apprehended. Images of a disheveled despot looking haggard and scared must have left more than one dictator shaking in his boots and rethinking his future.

An aggressive program of de-Baathification was introduced to ferret out remaining supporters of the "ancien regime," a new (temporary) constitution was adopted and the country is scheduled to reclaim self-rule on July 1, the first step toward full independence. But that will come only once stability returns. Until then, U.S. and other coalition troops will remain in cantonments in a number of bases strategically deployed around the country.

In order to reduce the number of casualties, the U.S. military intends to pull its troops out from cities and towns, where they are currently harassed, attacked and killed. Plans call for the troops to be repositioned in more secluded and secure out-of-the-way bases, where they will be less vulnerable to terrorist attacks. That is the theory. The practice though, can be less certain.

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Grouping soldiers in large numbers into delimited areas can have catastrophic effects. That is what the Marines in Beirut were forced to do in 1983, when -- following continuous harassment in the form of mortar and sniper attacks from Shiite and Druze militias -- they regrouped in the Battalion Landing Team building by Beirut International Airport. As we know, the BLT building became the target of a suicide bomber that killed 241 servicemen, causing the Marines their greatest single loss in a single day since the World War II battle of Iwo Jima -- a reminder to the Pentagon not to commit the same mistake again.

Meanwhile, all is far from rosy in modern-day, post-Saddam Mesopotamia.

In the last year, pictures of more than 550 American servicemen and women who were killed in Iraq and the 2,700 or so wounded, have been published in the pages of newspapers all across America. A good part of those casualties occurred after President George W. Bush declared the end of major hostilities on May 1. These hostilities, though not classified as "major," continue to claim lives every day. Countless more Iraqis -- many thousands who will remain anonymous -- have lost their lives. They will remain anonymous to the international media, because, well because they are Iraqis, that's all. Even in death, there seems to be preferential treatment.

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Meanwhile, specters of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction continue to haunt the Bush and Blair administrations. They have already claimed one victim -- Spain's Jose Maria Aznar and Popular Party, who lost the elections to the Socialists.

For Bush this is a particularly bad thing during an election year, although lately, the issue seems to have been mostly forgotten. But with the November presidential elections starting to heat up now that Sen. John Kerry -- barring some unforeseeable catastrophe -- will win the Democratic nomination, look for the WMD topic to re-enter the daily American election lexicon.

For Blair, his problems at the moment appear to be greater than the tale spun by No. 10 Downing Street that Saddam could activate his weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. But that's another story.

And although Saddam and the vast majority of his wicked henchmen were neutralized, terrorism has reared its ugly head and continues to proliferate, claiming victims by the hundreds. In the last year, Iraq has turned into some sort of giant magnet, attracting all kinds of extremists opposed to the United States. What Afghanistan was for the anti-Soviet mujahed in the 1970s, Iraq has now become for the anti-American jihadi.

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Yet far more worrisome today is that the stability the administration promised as a result of the invasion is still far from becoming a reality. We were told that democracy would self-propagate to the rest of the turbulent Middle East. So far, this has failed to materialize. Instead, it seems that quite the opposite is occurring. In fact, Iraq has never been closer to civil war as it is a year after the fall of Saddam.

"It's a very fragile entity," said Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. "If the trends don't change, it could be a big problem. Iraq is truly a vulnerable county that could turn into an Arab Yugoslavia."

The horrendous March 2 terrorist attacks -- which occurred on Ashoura, Shiism's holiest day, killing about 150 people -- was a harbinger of what may yet transpire in Iraq. If the Shiite community, which was badly shaken by this and previous terrorist attacks, has not retaliated yet, it is largely thanks to the mindset of one man: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The Iranian-born cleric, who angered the U.S. administration in Iraq by calling for direct elections prior to the July 1 target date for self-rule, has been instrumental in keeping the Shiite community in check. Representing about 60 percent of the population, Iraq's Shiites could cause serious upheaval, if unleashed.

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"I find myself praying every night for the continued health of a nearly 80 year-old Iranian cleric who lives off an alleyway in the southern part of the country," wrote Mitch Prothero, UPI's correspondent in the Iraqi capital, in a recent dispatch from Baghdad.

It would be a safe bet to think that the reporter is not the only one praying for the wellbeing of the octogenarian ayatollah. Chances are Bush and U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer say the same prayers for Sistani and for stability in Iraq, too.

"We've got to keep Sistani alive," said Clare Lopez, an intelligence analyst with Hawkeye Systems, a high-tech consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., that specializes in counter-terrorism issues.

With other such prominent Shiite leaders as Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, who was killed last Aug. 29 in Najaf¸ the disappearance of Sistani would have grave consequences for Iraq -- in any case, until the country attained a higher level of political maturity. But that is not about to happen for another couple of years, in the very least. Chances are that by the second, third and even fourth anniversaries of the Iraq war, American troops will still be deployed in the country.

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As Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli noted when Iraq's Shiite leaders squabbled over the interim constitution, earlier in the month, "This is democracy at work."

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