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THOMAS OLIPHANT

US military is the big threat now

WASHINGTON

THE BIGGEST threat to the new legitimately elected political leadership in Iraq is the very force that did so much to make it possible -- the American military.

The biggest threat is not an Iran-style theocracy ruthlessly imposed by the majority Shi'ites and triggering civil war. US officials who are involved in the grunt work of trying to help a democratic Iraq emerge confided over the weekend that they have had more than enough dealings with people from the majority community to be positive on that score. It will take hard work, but officials note that too many Iraqi Shi'ites have spent too many years in exile in Iran to see that mess as a workable model for progress.

Nor is the biggest threat the continuing violence and havoc wreaked by a dangerous insurgency. If the insurgency -- about which US officials know far less than they are willing to admit publicly -- were a strictly military danger, it would be moribund. It is low-tech, outnumbered, and unable to operate outside Iraq's shadows.

The biggest threat stems from the huge, omnipresent, overwhelming presence of the US military as an occupying force -- assisted by an American embassy with the largest staff of any such mission in the world.

This immense American footprint has already become the major reason for the insurgency's continued existence and recent growth. What is at issue now is whether this footprint will interfere with the emergence of an independent Iraqi government once the genuine thrill of Sunday's election inevitably dissipates.

The best clue to its danger is what happened to the latest Iraqi "leader" who was seen by many if not most Iraqis as little more than a puppet -- interim prime minister Iyad Allawi. Quite apart from his checkered past -- whether the Ba'athist part or the CIA-funded part -- his installation atop a technically sovereign government was inconsequential initially and ultimately counterproductive.

The risk now is that as leadership emerges within the new national assembly, its independence will be compromised by US heavy-handedness. The problem could emerge symbolically, out of the enormous security system demanded by the necessity of helping 275 people meet safely and regularly in the same place. Or it could emerge because of too much "guidance" from the Bush administration to a process that from this moment on has simply got to be Iraqi. What the insurgency is capable of doing is making Iraq nearly ungovernable -- through a combination of attacks on the 150,000 armed Americans still in the country and on the country's already battered infrastructure.

On the surface there would appear to be a major split between Massachusetts's senators, but in fact there isn't. Just before the elections, Senator Edward Kennedy recommended the withdrawal of at least 12,000 American troops in the immediate aftermath -- roughly the number added to the occupying force in the weeks before the voting. Senator John Kerry, fresh from a long tour of the region, does not support that; nor does he support setting a specific date for the phased withdrawal of all US forces.

However, Kennedy and Kerry both support an enormous acceleration of any program that increases the Iraqi profile and decreases the American profile. Kerry's program, unveiled last spring, remains the most sensible course -- support for the electoral and political process, a dramatic speed-up in the training of Iraqis for combat and security work, massive and accelerated reconstruction activity, and relentless pursuit of a larger international presence in the country. Kerry's contention is that serious implementation of that program would inevitably lead to troop withdrawal. They both support early talks with emerging Iraqi leaders about a timetable.

Of all the bits of information with which Kerry returned, none is more disturbing than his reports that Egypt and Jordan are prepared to train far more officers and police leaders than they have to date, but that US officials have rebuffed them.

The real point here is whether the election, to use Kerry's word, ends up being "over-hyped." The proper suspicion is that Bush's legitimate joy over the voting is discolored by a need for justification and a continuing adherence to the top-down, US-dominated thinking that made the postinvasion mess possible in the first place.

I prefer Kennedy's argument that Colin Powell's Pottery Barn Rule -- you break it, you own it -- is simplistic and overdue for revision.

"We need to rethink the Pottery Barn Rule," he said last week. "America cannot forever be the potter that sculpts Iraq's future. President Bush broke Iraq, but if we want Iraq to be fixed, the Iraqis must feel that they, not we, own it."

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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