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Anti-Americanism Shapes the Political Scene

Leaders perform a balancing act to get what they need from the U.S. while heeding the anger many citizens feel over the occupation.

June 14, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — For months, Adnan Pachachi was hailed as the potential George Washington for a democratic Iraq.

But the venerable member of the Iraqi Governing Council abruptly withdrew from the presidential contest this month when Iraqi critics tried to brand him as a Benedict Arnold.

His alleged offense? He was the United States' top pick for the job.

In fact, Pachachi's political positions were about the same as those of his opponent, Ghazi Ajil Yawer, and there are questions about whether he really was the Americans' first choice. But the fact that Pachachi's opponents sidelined him, in part, by portraying him as a puppet of the U.S. shows how anti-Americanism is already shaping Iraq's political scene.

"It's a new tool that I think a lot of people are going to use," said Ismael Zayer, a newspaper publisher in Iraq.

As the June 30 hand-over to Iraqi sovereignty approaches, a new crop of leaders is discovering the delicate balancing act between needing strong diplomatic ties with the U.S. and heeding the growing anger felt by many Iraqis after more than a year under occupation.

Yawer, for example, has made strongly critical statements in Iraq about the U.S.-led occupation but on Sunday, before an American audience on TV news interview shows, he made largely conciliatory statements.

Asked by host Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" about a recent remark that the U.S. was guilty of genocide, Yawer at first denied it and then said he was referring only to the case of Fallouja, "when you besiege a city with an army and you start shelling it with jet fighters" while trying to rid it of "bad elements."

"No, my friend," he concluded, "we in Iraq appreciate very much the valuable sacrifices that our friends, the brave young men and women of the United States and Great Britain, are having in the cause of our democracy."

Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, a former member of the now disbanded Governing Council, said Iraqi officials "have to walk a tightrope between appearing to be friendly with the Americans and, on the other hand, trying to appease the resistance."

The issue is particularly important for the new interim government, which is racing to build legitimacy and credibility with the Iraqi people before the U.S. formally turns over authority at the end of the month.

"Iraqis on the street want to see the new government stand up to the U.S.," Zayer said.

In its first two weeks, the interim government has been staking out a middle ground, observers say. "If they rely too much on America, the new government will not be accepted by voters," said Hassan Bazaz, a political consultant in Baghdad.

During the debate over a new U.N. resolution on their country, Iraqi leaders took a surprisingly aggressive and independent stance on the issue of gaining full sovereignty, but they ultimately agreed to give the U.S. military final authority over multinational troops in Iraq.

"It was all largely a show for the benefit of the public," Bazaz said. "But they need to put on that show in order to be accepted."

Officials in the interim government acknowledge that they will need the U.S. in the coming months. Washington controls the purse strings for $18 billion in reconstruction contracts and will maintain more than 135,000 troops in Iraq after June 30, a critical source of security.

But officials say they want to redefine the relationship, interacting with Americans as partners rather than as occupiers.

"We are allies with the U.S.," said Rosh Shawais, one of Iraq's two vice presidents. "We are grateful for what they have done in liberating Iraq, and we are awaiting much more support for the benefit of the Iraqi people. That doesn't mean that we won't have different positions on some matters. We hope to resolve them with friendly dialogue."

Still, the temptation to attack the U.S. to score political points will be hard to resist.

"It's much easier to run an anti-U.S. ticket," Sumaidy said, although he said he believed such campaigns would be "fundamentally dishonest and counter to the interests of Iraq."

A prime example of the political capital of anti-Americanism is radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. Before the U.S. closed his newspaper and announced a warrant for his arrest, Sadr was regarded chiefly as a nuisance with a small following. After nearly two months of fighting against the U.S., most political experts agree, Sadr or one of his aides would almost certainly win a seat in any elected government.

A May opinion poll ranked Sadr as the second-most-popular figure in Iraq after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also a critic of the U.S. occupation, albeit a more muted one.

On Sunday, a Sadr spokesman again criticized the "Americanized personalities" serving in the interim government and said Sadr's group hoped to launch a political party soon.

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