It didn’t have to be this way. But because of heavy-handedness and cultural insensitivity, the American occupation force has now lost the support of the three key Shi’ite leaders in Iraq – allies through circumstance until now.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani announced last Saturday the issuing of a fatwa against an “illegitimate” constitution “if it is not adopted by an Iraqi government elected by the people.” Young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – whose religious family is highly influential in Iraq – has denounced American “terrorism.” And Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the president of the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), has said on the record that an Iraqi administration named by American proconsul L Paul Bremer would be “illegal.”

Bremer’s task for Iraq is to form a political council of 25 to 30 Iraqis. This council, approved by Bremer, will then appoint ministers and be consulted on all key decisions, which will then be made by Bremer himself. Bremer said on Tuesday that this “provisional authority” was expected to be set up by mid-July. It’s now clear that the project has been flatly rejected by the moderate yet heavyweight al-Sistani, “The project in question is fundamentally unacceptable.” While he still condemns the non-stop attacks against the Americans and the British, he is at pains to point out that “the [occupation] authorities don’t enjoy any prerogative to appoint the members of the assembly charged to elaborate the constitution.” United Nations special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello has witnessed first-hand the impatience and anger of the all-powerful al-Hawza – the “Shi’ite Vatican” in the holy city of Najaf. On Saturday, Vieira de Mello had a long conversation (behind closed doors) with al-Sistani, and then with al-Hakim and al-Sadr.

No leaders in Najaf – or anywhere in Iraq for that matter – have forgotten the promise made in February by the American special envoy to deal with the Iraqi opposition. Zalmay Khalilzad promised then that the government of the country would be handed over to Iraqis once the war ended. Al-Hakim is now saying that an Iraqi government should be formed soon “to work to end the occupation by peaceful means.”

Vieira de Mello is now fully aware of the balancing act that he will have to perform to bridge the gulf between not only the Sunni community, but between the dominant Shi’ites (62 percent of the population) and the “occuliberators” (as the Americans have been dubbed by observers). Even though Shi’ite religious leaders are still talking about cooperation with the Americans and a strategy of non-violence, there is now a completely different ball game.

The best indication is the fact that al-Sistani told Vieira de Mello to deliver “a message to Paul Bremer” – implying that direct contact was not welcomed any more. The UN special envoy did not – and certainly could not – elaborate, but the message was almost certainly news about the fatwa declaring that an Iraqi constitution written by the Americans or even by Iraqis appointed by the Americans would be “illegitimate.” Al-Sistani is clear: a new constitution can only be written and approved by popularly-elected Iraqis.

As for SAIRI leader al-Hakim – who recently came back from exile in Iran – he is following with great interest the American campaign of “de-Ba’athization” of Iraqi society. But his warning mirrors the ayatollah’s: “If Mr Bremer himself names an administration and a group of officials, it will be illegal. It will be against the UN resolution. It will be against George [W] Bush’s promises that Iraq must be a free and democratic country, a sovereign country liberated from foreign influence.” Al-Hakim stresses that as long as American military and diplomats control the political process, “the country will not be stable.”

For his part, al-Sadr, while denouncing “the American occupation legitimized by the UN,” wants “a representative government of the Iraqi people” as soon as possible. He echoes what is arguably the consensus among Iraqis: “Saddam [Hussein’s] regime was unacceptable, but the foreign occupation is also unacceptable.” On the heavy-handed behavior of American troops, the young al-Sadr pointedly says “one does not combat terrorism with terrorism.”

Saddam’s regime vanished on April 9, almost three months ago. Baghdadis have had enough. Power cuts are the norm: homes are deprived of drinking water and air-conditioning with temperatures hovering above 40 degrees Celsius. The Americans blame the cuts on sabotage. Military Humvees with loudspeakers tour the city with the message that electricity will be back “as soon as possible.” Baghdadis interpret it otherwise: a wide consensus in the streets is that the Americans are trying to sap the morale of the population, and then tighten their grip.

Iraq is a cauldron of mixed emotions. Although their living conditions are poor, it’s fair to say that the majority of Baghdadis don’t want the Americans to leave – at least for now: this would be the road to civil war. But they are practically unanimous in their critique of both American inertia – in terms of improving living conditions in the capital – and obsession with their own security: American soldiers only move in convoys and with their hands on the triggers of their M-16s. The outside world can follow daily on television footage of US soldiers frisking Iraqi women through their traditional abbaya. It is arguable that the killings of innocent Iraqi women and children would have been avoided if American soldiers had been taught to speak at least 10 basic words in Arabic – as well as to pay attention to basic religious and cultural norms in the Arab world.

Just like after the war on Afghanistan, the Americans once again have squandered their accumulated capital of good will in Iraq . Al-Hakim always mentions the force of “public opinion.” The Shi’ite spiritual leaders’ new attitude towards the Americans is nothing but a reflection of popular anger. Unlike Sunnis, Ba’athists or not, related or not to Saddam’s promise of a guerrilla war against the foreign invaders, the Shi’ites may not want the Americans out by now. But they are making it very clear that the Iraqi population will not bend to Bremer’s diktats.

“Vietnamization” may be too overstretched a concept – at least not before the real force and extent of Saddam’s announced intifada for the end of the month is revealed. But “quagmire” is now a more than realistic scenario. The US cannot leave Iraq because – in a very Chinese way – it would lose tremendous face. But if does not show a little more humanity and sensitivity towards the plight of Iraqis, it is bound to be attacked non-stop, Vietnam-style. Former counter-insurgency specialist Bremer may be just another casualty in a litany of monstrous mistakes. Iraqis – a very sophisticated and well-educated people carrying in their collective unconscious the lessons of 7,000 years of civilization – cannot but see the writing on the wall.

The awesome American military machine was able to smash the remnants of a pitiful Iraqi army who dared to show up for battle, but it cannot assure a minimum of security for the civilian population. There has been no post-war humanitarian plan, because the whole Iraqi operation has been directed by the Pentagon – which is not exactly a humanitarian organization. The first thing to be protected once Saddam’s regime fell were Iraqi oil installations, but the protection of Iraqi power plants seem to pose an unsurpassable military challenge.

The questionable legality of the war and the absence of weapons of mass destruction notwithstanding, the US is in Iraq, and there’s no doubt that American credibility will be measured against the success of the Iraqi adventure. The de facto guerrilla situation is conditioned by two undisputed factors: a foreign invasion, and the unwillingness of the foreign invaders to restore order, basic public services and most of all, sovereignty to the Iraqi people. No matter the spin from Washington, for Iraqis, the American “liberation” thus far has been synonymous with foreign invasion, deprivation and chaos.

Bremer says that he will need more American troops. Bush, referring to the guerrillas, said “bring them on.” He also said, “We have the force necessary to deal with the situation.” Force won’t do: political intelligence and cultural sensitivity will.

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