Patrick Cockburn: Mr Bush's fate is in the hands of the ayatollahs

The US promised democracy for Iraq, but it is frightened that the Shia Muslims might win
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The Independent Online

A smear of dark blood on the dusty pavement marked the spot where an American soldier was shot dead with a bullet in the neck and another wound in the arm close to al-Dohra power station in south Baghdad. When I asked the dozen Iraqis who had witnessed the shooting what they thought about the killing, they all said they approved of it.

"We think they deserved it," was the chilling comment of a man who gave his name as Mohammed Abbas. "We admire the bravery of those who attacked them." Another bystander enthused: "We will celebrate by cooking a chicken. God willing there will be more actions like this."

American soldiers in Baghdad are not popular. Iraqis wonder why, with 55,000 US soldiers in and around the capital, armed looters and thieves still prowl the streets. Last week, as the temperature soared to well over 100F, refrigerators and air-conditioning did not work because in many districts there were only one or two hours of electricity a day.

Above all, Baghdad is alive with frightening rumours because the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the lumbering name of the US occupation administration, has somehow failed to get radio and television carrying credible information back on the air. One rumour, almost universally believed in Baghdad, is that gangs working for Kuwaitis are kidnapping Iraqi girls and taking them off to servitude in Kuwait. Forty kidnapped girls were said to have been discovered in a house in al-Mansur district, though nobody knows what street it was in.

Because the failings of the occupation are so grotesque, it is easy to forget that whatever else happens Iraqis certainly do not want the return of Saddam Hussein. Amid the torrent of rumours there are true and terrible stories of cruelty, such as one about a father and his two sons who were compelled by Saddam's security men to execute a third son or see their entire family slaughtered.

The success or failure of the US occupation is still on a knife edge. With the capture of Baghdad on 9 April, the US won an easy military victory but it has been unable to turn this into a political victory in the following 10 weeks. It might still do so but it faces many obstacles.

So far there have been only sporadic attacks by gunmen armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The blowing up of oil and gas pipelines in western Iraq may presage something more, but there is no co-ordinated guerrilla warfare.

Armed resistance is confined to the Sunni Muslim heartlands in Baghdad and central Iraq. It was the Sunni Muslims under the Ottomans, Britain, the monarchy and Saddam Hussein who dominated civil and military government. It is their community that is worst affected by the war.

There have been no attacks in Kurdistan, where people are euphoric at the outcome of the war. They have regained Kirkuk and lands lost during 40 years of ethnic cleansing. They need the US to prevent Turkish intervention.

Most important, there has been almost no resistance to the US in parts of Iraq dominated by the Shiah Muslims, who make up at least 55 per cent of the population. They hope that their moment has come after centuries of oppression. They are likely to win any genuinely free elections.

At the weekend I saw a small demonstration of Shia outside the al-Mansour hotel in Baghdad marching on the CPA headquarters housed inside Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace. The leader of the protest was Sheikh Ahmad al-Zirjawi al-Baghdadi, a Shia cleric in turban and dark robes, looking very much like Hollywood's idea of an Islamic fanatic foaming with anti-American rhetoric.

In fact, he said: "We are not asking for American troops to withdraw but for free elections." This is the real problem for the US. It promised democracy for Iraq but it is frightened of the Shia representatives winning. It is therefore trying to delay elections until it thinks that people acceptable to Washington will get elected. This may be a long time coming. In Najaf, the religious capital of the Shia south, the US has even managed to appoint a fervently Sunni governor (this is a bit like occupying the Vatican and appointing a fanatical Protestant). Fresh elections in the city have been cancelled by the US military authorities.

One of the bizarre aspects of the situation in Iraq is that what ageing grand ayatollahs decide in their modest houses in the dusty back alleys of Najaf will directly affect the next US presidential election. If they called for passive resistance or a jihad, though the latter is not likely, they could quickly rub the gilt off President Bush's military victory.

Even if the US allows, prior to an Iraqi national election, a genuinely representative Iraqi political council with real power, it will be dealing with people it does not like. But if it does not do so, it will have increasing difficulties in ruling Iraq by military force alone. In either case the White House is discovering that the occupation of Iraq, one of the most complex societies on earth, which appeared to be a sure election winner in the US a few weeks ago, has added some dangerously unpredictable wild cards to American politics.

Patrick Cockburn is the co-author with Andrew Cockburn of 'Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession'