Baghdad, Iraq As the Bush administration looks for an exit strategy from this beleaguered country, key Iraqi leaders are growing reluctant to see the Americans leave.
Until recently, leaders of the majority Iraqi Shiite community insisted that the Americans should leave after elections in 2005. The party platform of the United Iraqi Alliance -- the Shiite bloc expected to win the largest share of Sunday's vote -- called for a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational troops.
Now, Shiite leaders have changed their minds. In a move little noticed by the media, the alliance has dropped the call for a timetable from its platform.
The alliance has not yet publicized the change; it took me days and many trips to party headquarters to get hold of a copy of the revised version of the platform.
But the policy shift reflects a growing fear in the Shiite establishment that if the Americans leave soon, the Sunni Baathists who persecuted them under Saddam might make a comeback. The Shiite community is also under siege by radical Sunni Islamists from inside -- and outside -- Iraq who consider Shiite Muslims to be infidels. These fanatics are trying to foment civil war.
To get to the office of one leading Shiite party, you have to pass half a dozen charred hulks of cars incinerated by a suicide driver. Another party office near my hotel was blown up last week. Pilgrims are beheaded on the road to the holy city of Najaf, mosques bombed in Baghdad districts. Only a fatwa by the leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has prevented an orgy of Shiite revenge.
"If the United States pulls out too fast, there would be chaos," I was told by Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jaafari, one alliance candidate for prime minister. "We would expect Iraq might break up because we don't have a powerful government to prevent this from happening. So it's difficult to mention a date until the situation gets back to normal."
Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, another alliance candidate for prime minister, elaborated: The current violence, he said, has "created some realistic thinking about the American presence." At first, the Alliance wanted "a certain timetable," but then concluded that any U.S. exit had to be linked to progress in fighting terrorists and providing security for Iraqi cities.
The revised platform plank doesn't mention withdrawal. It says only that the alliance seeks "an Iraq which is capable of guaranteeing its security and borders without depending on foreign troops."
Shiite leaders complain about U.S. mistakes in training Iraqi security forces. If they win the largest share of the vote, they will demand control of the ministries of defense and interior. But in the meantime, they have decided they have no choice but to depend on the Americans. Most Shiites cheered the leveling of the town of Fallujah, which had become a base for Islamists; some Shiite friends told me they held parties.
What's so ironic is that U.S. occupation has created a situation so chaotic that few Iraqis want the Americans to leave -- except the most die-hard insurgents. Polls don't convey the reality: The same Iraqis who denounce occupation are frightened of what will happen if they're left alone with each other.
"Even the insurgents don't accept an immediate pulling out of the Americans," says Ayad al-Sammerai, the deputy chairman of the biggest Sunni political grouping, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has pulled out of the election in support of a Sunni boycott.
"The Americans have created a situation where no one would accept an immediate pullout," says Sammerai. "We want to see a plan," he adds, "that lays out gradual steps toward an American departure." How long should this take? I ask. His answer, which showed he wasn't in a hurry: "Maybe three years."
The United States has wedged itself into position as the bulwark between two communities fighting for power. The Shiites resent their dependence on U.S. troops but hope those troops will crush their Sunni opponents. Sunnis kill U.S. troops, but many Sunnis fear they will be slaughtered if those troops exit.
The only way the Americans can escape this dangerous role is to facilitate the creation of an Iraqi security force that will fight for a united Iraq, and do it well enough so U.S. troops can at least leave Iraqi cities. That happy day looks very far off.