Analysis: Mideast Course At the Mercy of Local Factions

By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 29, 2005

For all the attention and resources the Bush administration has poured into the Middle East, the outcome of its two most critical initiatives is increasingly vulnerable to the sectarian passions, tumultuous history and political priorities of the local players, say U.S. officials and regional experts.

Two developments over the past week marked major movement for the U.S. agenda: Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, a critical step in the creation of a Palestinian state and regional peace. And Iraq submitted a constitution to its national assembly, offering the legal foundation for a new Iraqi state.

President Bush yesterday and in his radio address Saturday hailed the two events as turning points in promoting democracy and peace in the region. On Iraq, Bush said its people have "demonstrated to the world that they are up to the historic challenges before them. The document they have produced contains far-reaching protections for fundamental human freedoms, including religion, assembly, conscience and expression."

But the actual implementation of Iraq's constitution and the viability of Gaza will now depend largely on forces beyond Washington's control -- and both face mounting challenges.

"The theme in this region is the reality of a foreign military power that comes in with great determination and overwhelming force, defeats people, subjugates a nation and then gets completely lost in the local maelstrom of interests and the irresistible force of indigenous identity -- religious, ethnic, sectarian, national. People act in a maniacal way when they assert these identities, which includes nurturing and protecting them," said Rami Khouri, a U.S.-educated Arab analyst and editor of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.

"Every single foreign power that has been in this region since Alexander the Great -- through the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, British, French and now Americans -- has learned the same lesson," Khouri said.

The growing U.S. challenge in trying to influence events was reflected when Bush called a top Shiite politician Wednesday, a day before Iraq's constitution was due, to warn against alienating the Sunni minority and potentially sabotaging the entire process. But the Shiite parties did not quickly or fully appease Sunni concerns -- and Iraq missed its deadline for a third time on Thursday.

"The U.S. is shackled by the very forces that it liberated," said Robert Malley, the International Crisis Group's Middle East program director and a former Clinton administration National Security Council staff member.

"All those forces silenced during Saddam Hussein's rule are using a period of transition, when Iraq is remaking itself, to express themselves or gain advantage. Even though the United States is the dominant force, it is increasingly finding itself a bystander as Iraqis vie for power and to define what a future Iraq is going to be," Malley said.

The administration acknowledged yesterday that political transformations take time and often do not unfold evenly -- and that the outcome is far from guaranteed.

"If the Sunnis do vote for it and approve the constitution, if the constitution is not stopped, then it will be a national contract and it will help with the counter-insurgency strategy," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "If they don't, then it will be a problem."

Bush also acknowledged the split among Iraqis, which he described as a right of free individuals living in a free society. "We recognize that there is a split amongst the Sunnis, for example, in Iraq. And I suspect that when you get down to it, you'll find a Shiite in disagreement with a Shiite who supports the constitution, and perhaps some Kurds are concerned about the constitution," Bush said. "We're watching a political process unfold."

But rivalries over shaping that future in a free environment have also sparked tensions, even within sectarian factions. Despite the presence of more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, clashes erupted last week between two Shiite militias: Troops loyal to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr fought the Badr Organization of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Militia wings of Iraq's political parties are "looking out for their own future" and will continue to "act in ways that strengthen them, politically and militarily," said Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and former ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "They see themselves winning [over other groups] and now they're fighting to see who gets the biggest piece of the action. That puts the U.S. in a different position."

On Gaza, U.S. goals are likely to be heavily influenced over the next year by internal Israeli and Palestinian politics. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon face significant political foes -- and critical elections.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which already has a substantial base of support in Gaza, is increasingly challenging Abbas's authority. The competition between secular and religious parties will play out when Hamas runs for the first time in legislative elections in January.

Despite Israel's insistence, Abbas has refused to disarm Hamas's militia wing -- and is unlikely to take that unpopular move before the January voting. That, in turn, will hurt U.S. efforts to solidify security arrangements and then move forward on the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the roadmap.

Sharon is facing a revolt in his Likud Party over his controversial decision to withdraw from Gaza, with one poll showing him 17 percentage points behind former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu among party supporters. Netanyahu quit the Sharon cabinet earlier this month in opposition to the Gaza decision. Elections are expected by November 2006.

As the Gaza withdrawal neared, Sharon moved to placate his right-wing base by pushing forward with construction of a security fence, slicing through Palestinian farmland, to encircle and protect the largest settlement on the West Bank. The move infuriated Palestinians and could undercut support for Abbas.

The administration deserved credit for working hard to make the Gaza withdrawal a success, said Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, but "now it's clear everyone had not fully thought about the morning after." There is now a "huge gap in expectations," with the Israelis expecting a breather after last week's wrenching settler evictions from Gaza and the Palestinians expecting accelerated peace talks.

"Both sides are wrapped up in their own political dynamics," Telhami said. The Bush administration faces the challenge of "helping Sharon without hurting Abbas and helping Abbas without hurting Sharon."

Local economic and security priorities may also complicate the U.S. agenda. In creating a viable Gaza for 1.3 million Palestinians, the Palestinian focus is on building an economy that includes free flow of goods and people across the borders with Israel and Egypt. But Israel's primary focus is on security guarantees to ensure that extremists are unable to cross into Israel.

Administration officials acknowledge the pace of decisions is up to the two parties.

"We may have our views about any particular issue," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch said last week at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, "but at the end of the day, it's a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to decide."

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