The battle of will now underway in Fallujah between Iraqis and Americans will, I expect, increase. Further, I predict Iraqis will prevail, and I do so on the basis of two presumptions: Iraqis don't want Americans to rule them; and Iraqis care much more about the future of their country than do Americans.
For the sake of argument, let's assume my reasoning is correct, the American government abandons its goal of "a free and peaceful Iraq," and coalition forces prepare to leave Iraq on less-than-optimal terms. What would then be the least-bad outcome?
Having the central government control the entire country and patrol its borders, contain radical ideologies and ethnic tensions, and not attack neighbors. Further, it would ensure reasonable freedoms, permit the economy and culture to develop, dispatch oil and gas to the outside world, and move toward increased political participation.
Fine, but how to achieve this?
I began arguing a year ago, first on television, then in writing, that Iraq needs "a democratically-minded Iraqi strongman," returning to this theme again and again in subsequent months. He would combine several features:
- No history of criminality or atrocities during the Saddam Hussein era;
- No radical ideological beliefs, Islamist, Baathist, or other;
- A recognized social standing;
- Access to the tools of power; and
- A power base that is not restricted to the Sunni, Shiite, or Kurdish populations, making him eligible to become leader of the whole country.
Who might fit these criteria? A high ranking military officer not incriminated by the previous regime's butchery, someone who could establish working relations with the coalition even as he defies it and works to extrude it and rule Iraq.
Until last week, this was a job description which no one appeared to fit.
Then came the news, at first blush dismaying, that ex-Major General Jassim Mohammed Saleh al-Dulaimi, 49, a Fallujah native and reportedly a relative of Saddam Hussein, is heading the Fallujah Protective Army, a brand-new Iraqi force working with the coalition to help avoid a confrontation between it and insurgents in Fallujah. Consisting of 1,100 volunteers, mostly disgruntled former officers and enlisted soldiers from the Fallujah region, it is tasked with staffing checkpoints and theoretically reports to the U.S. Marines.
As Mr. Saleh took command on April 30, the stocky general with a Saddam-style mustache wore his Saddam-era uniform, complete with maroon beret. In a scene broadcast across Iraq, he shook hands with Marine commanders and had the old Iraqi flag raised, to the cheers of onlookers. He set the tone immediately by declaring an intent to impose security and stability in Fallujah "without the need for the American army, which the people of Fallujah reject."
As his forces took up position, they celebrated what they saw as a victory over the withdrawing American forces. "We won," exclaimed one of them to the Washington Post. "We didn't want the Americans to enter the city and we succeeded."
Mr. Saleh seems to be popular in Fallujah, where his arrival met with wide approval. Residents flashed the V-for-victory gesture and mosque P.A. systems gloated over the American retreat. The Associated Press quotes a policeman saying, "We have very much respect for General Saleh. He was a real officer and is an observant Muslim. He did not harm anyone."
Mr. Saleh has filled many senior positions; one former general recalls him serving as a divisional chief of staff in the Republican Guard, commanding the army's 38th Infantry Division, the whole Iraqi army's infantry forces, and the Al-Quds Army. One of his relatives adds that Mr. Saleh was not political and so did not rise in the Baath party. Indeed, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said that Mr. Saleh had opposed Saddam's regime and paid a "steep personal price."
However, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers said that Mr. Saleh "has not been vetted yet and probably won't be the one in command." Later, news came that another ex-major general, Mohammed Latif, would probably replace Mr. Saleh as head of the Fallujah Protective Army.
This confusion, plus the abrupt appearance of Messrs. Saleh and Latif, suggests that the race to fill the position of strongman has begun. I cannot predict who will eventually fill it but I can — sadly — say that someone of their general description represents the realistic best hope for Iraq.