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The problem with Iraq: Is it faulty US perception?

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President Bush insists that the current violence in Iraq is the work of "a few people" and "violent groups." If this is the situation, it should be relatively easy to control, and US actions should have broad Iraqi support. Neither appears to be the case.

Members of Iraq's Governing Council have objected to the assault on Fallujah and have urged talks. Many in the new Iraqi Army and police refuse to confront fellow Iraqis. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a significant Shiite Muslim leader, is taking a soft line toward rival cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Is the US once more acting abroad on the basis of perceptions less related to realities on the ground than to American objectives and hopes?

The US attacks on Fallujah, in reprisal for the death and mutilation of the four civilian contractors, are understandable in an American context. Those responsible must be brought to justice; failure to react would have been seen as weakness. Although the US insists that it is applying force in a discriminating way, casualties among noncombatants cannot be avoided. In a land of tribes and extended families, each Iraqi killed increases the numbers who hate the US.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) closed Mr. Sadr's newspaper, has threatened his arrest, and now confronts his Mehdi army militia. The working assumption of the CPA has been that Sadr is not broadly popular and represents only a fringe of majority Shiites. If Sadr is of such marginal importance, why did the authority take the highly risky step of closing his newspaper? Sadr is Iraqi - as is his militia - and whatever the views of other Iraqis may be, it is difficult for them openly to oppose fellow countrymen challenging an occupying power.

The coalition is talking tough: Sadr and his fighters are "thugs." They may be, but when only Americans are using such terms and even Sadr's Iraqi enemies are silent, the words have little credibility.


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