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Wednesday, January 28

Analysis: Ethnic tensions threaten Bush's plan

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - It was among the worst-case scenarios for the Bush administration as it prepared to invade Iraq: civil war once Saddam Hussein's iron grip was broken.

Recent weeks have seen potentially worrisome cracks forming along ethnic and religious lines in Iraq that could lead to unrest or worse.

The rejection of U.S. plans to return self-rule to Iraq by a leading Shiite Muslim cleric - seen as a sign of a potential Shiite power grab - is only one of several rifts.

Iraq's Kurds are seeking autonomy in the nation's oil-rich northern territory, threatening to fracture the country.

In central Iraq, the once dominant Sunni Arabs, who staffed Saddam's regime, are nearing a state of panic over their plunging prospects.

``These are serious developments,'' said Shaul Bakhash, an expert in Shiite politics at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. ``We don't seem to be at the point where there is a real breakdown or loss of control yet, but these developments are cause for concern.''

Crunch time

The timetable to cool these tensions and reach agreement on a self-rule plan for Iraq is running short, with the Bush administration planning to hand over sovereignty on June 30.

Delaying that would stir up Iraq's volatile Shiite clerics who fear the United States will try to set up a puppet government and have called for changes in the self-rule plan.

The U.S.-led civilian Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and the Iraqi Governing Council have agreed to transfer sovereignty through caucus-style elections this summer with direct elections in 2005.

Shiite clerics, most notably Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, are demanding direct elections this summer, claiming the caucuses smack of colonial rule.

The United Nations has agreed to send analysts to Iraq to help placate the Shiites, with Secretary General Kofi Annan saying he is confident the world body can help ``break the current impasse.'' There are limits, however, to how much farther the Bush administration can budge.

The coalition authority has already made concessions to the Shiites and the Kurds.

If it yields again, it could appear to be losing control, potentially sparking skirmishes or civil war as Iraq's ethnic groups rush to cover their assets.

``We have said we are prepared to seek clarifications in the process,'' coalition authority administrator Paul Bremer said recently, trying to discourage Shiite hopes for scrapping the self-rule plan.

Iraqi officials who have met with the reclusive Sistani say he is willing to entertain compromise.

``He is a reasonable man, `` said Adnan Pachachi, president of the Iraqi Governing Council. ``He has no personal ambitions.''

Hopes and fears

Much of the tension in Iraq now flows from decades and even centuries of history.

The Shiites have chafed under minority rule since 1921 when the British created modern Iraq.

Under Saddam's secular Baathist regime, they suffered religious persecution and were slaughtered by the thousands in a 1991 revolt the Americans helped incite, but did not support.

As a 60 percent majority among Iraq's 24 million people, the Shiites clearly plan to dominate the new government. The Bush administration has more or less accepted this in principle, but not in detail.

The fear is that when it comes time to write a constitution next year, the Shiites will use it to enshrine their leadership and marginalize the Sunnis and Kurds. Conflict would be almost inevitable.

The Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in the north are not quite as worrisome - at least for now.

Since 1991, the Kurds have retained virtual autonomy in oil-rich northern Iraq, which they call Iraqi Kurdistan. With Saddam gone, they want their autonomy codified.

The Shiites and Sunnis fear this would jeopardize the new Iraqi state. It will almost certainly re-ignite simmering nationalist passions among the Kurds in neighboring Turkey and fuel violence there.

The Sunnis, who had administered Iraq through four centuries of Turkish, British and finally Iraqi rule, now find themselves with little clout or power. Excluding them from the political process will only fuel the insurgency they are now suspected of waging.

Weighing options

The Bush administration is weighing options on how to tweak its self-rule plan, primarily to quiet the Shiites.

One approach is to open the caucuses so ordinary Iraqis can participate in addition to members of provincial councils.

United Nations officials have been discussing replicating the self-rule process used in Afghanistan where a loya jirga, or grand assembly, of representatives from political parties, tribes, and ethnic groups picks a provisional government.

None of these options, including the U.S. plan, has much of a chance in Iraq unless the occupation troops can restore enough security so Iraqis can participate without risking violence.

Progress on that front has been halting, at best.