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Iraq: If U.S. Troops Left, Would Civil War, Sectarian Strife Follow?

Plans by U.S. and British officials in Iraq to declare an occupation authority in Iraq have made it clear that Western troops and administrators will not be leaving the country anytime soon. Some Iraqi political groups are growing increasingly frustrated with the entrenched Western presence and the continued delays in forming a sovereign Iraqi government. But would Iraq be better off on its own?

Baghdad, 21 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this week, Shi'a Muslims marched through the Iraqi capital, chanting support for Shi'a leader Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri:

"Our Shi'a is al-Ha'iri! Our Shi'a is al-Ha'iri! Our Shi'a is al-Ha'iri!"

But the demonstrators had a second message as well: Americans, go home. The some 10,000 Shi'as who gathered for the peaceful protest demanded the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces and criticized U.S. plans to take the lead in installing a transitional authority.

The demonstration was organized by Al-Hawza Al-Ilmia, a powerful Shia movement based in the holy city of Al-Najaf and divided between followers of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani and those of Imam Muhammad al-Sadr -- a revered cleric killed by the ruling regime in 1999.

In Baghdad, the sprawling Shi'a neighborhood formerly known as Saddam City has been renamed Sadr City. Al-Hawza, which prides itself on having established social order in many cities following the fall of Hussein, is believed to fully control Sadr City -- home to some 2 million Shi'as. And its influence in the capital city continues to grow.

Shaykh Abd al-Jabbar Menhal is Al-Hawza's representative in Baghdad. He says the group was invited by the U.S. civil administration to take part in the formation of a new Iraqi government, but did not accept because Al-Hawza is still in the process of restructuring itself as a political party.

Menhal did not rule out a future role for Al-Hawza in the government's creation. But he urged the U.S. administration to leave Iraq as soon as possible, and said Iraq would not collapse into chaos if the Americans departed. "We formed a [shadow] government. [Religious] scholars formed a [shadow] government. They organized the traffic, they maintained order, they helped the poor. We can say we are well-organized people. We don't need America to maintain order," he said.

Menhal said the U.S. gave up its right to participate in Iraqi nation-building when it failed to restore security and basic services in the days and weeks following the fall of Baghdad. The only thing the Americans are interested in, he said, is Iraqi oil. "[They are not providing a lot of help to the Iraqi people] in comparison to what they gain from the fortune of Iraq," Menhal said. "They repaired many oil wells and began to export it. But as we see there is no electricity, no traffic control, [no] medicine."

But not everyone has the same stance as Al-Hawza on the U.S. presence in Iraq. Adel Murad is the Baghdad head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the country's two largest Kurdish parties. He told RFE/RL the PUK sees the U.S.-led coalition as liberators, not occupiers, and wants them to stay to preserve stability until a democratic government can be formed. He warns that the consequences of a premature American withdrawal could be disastrous.

"I think the civil war [would] begin, definitely, between Saddam Hussein's supporters and the people. A war [among] parties [will start]. It will be a disaster; a big disaster in Iraq. The blood will [flow], the starvation will begin," Murad said.

Ali Abd al-Amir is a spokesman for the Iraqi National Accord, a group formed in exile in 1990 by Ayad Alawi. He agrees with Murad of PUK that it is important for Western authorities to remain in Iraq as long as the question of the country's political future is in flux -- and as long as "the main skeleton of the Saddam regime is still alive."

"We must first [establish] our national government, and [find the ways] for this government to control the country," he said.

He said Iraqi army, police, and financial institutions also need to be established, and added, "Only when these things are established and Iraq becomes a stable country, American troops may go."