Whose war is it now?
A TIGER killed a fawn and began munching on it, according to a popular Bangladeshi folk tale. A hungry bear jumped on the tiger to snatch the carcass away. The two fought until both lay mortally wounded, unable to move. A fox, which was watching the fight from a bush, scampered to the dead fawn and feasted to its heart's content.
The United States overthrew Saddam Hussein only to be overwhelmed by a Sunni Arab insurgency. But Sunni Arabs, being a minority, can't come to power through the Jan. 30 elections. This is why most of them are boycotting the vote. A pro-Iranian electoral alliance of the Shi'ite majority is predicted to win a majority of parliamentary seats and form the government. The Iranians are helping the alliance with money and volunteers, ignoring President Bush's warnings against "meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq."
During an appearance on an Iranian TV show the other day, I was asked what gave "invaders from the other end of the world the right to question our help and support" to his fellow Shi'ites in Iraq. Iran had been sheltering Iraqi exiles, the interviewer added, since before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former New York congressman Stephen Solarz "were making pilgrimages to Baghdad [in the 1980s] with your presidents' goodwill messages to Saddam."
The war to overthrow Saddam, a bitter enemy of Israel, was masterminded by a group of neoconservatives, and Patrick Buchanan and others accused them of dragging America into "Israel's war."
Now Arab commentators are saying that America is fighting "Iran's war." The US invasion has, besides facilitating the creation of a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, wrecked the military power of Iraq, Iran's historic adversary. Iraqi Shi'ites aren't a monolith, and the elections could be followed by an intra-Shi'ite power struggle, alongside a broader one among Shi'ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Kurds.
The United States is deepening the Shi'ite-Sunni divide. President Bush got his Sunni Arab proteges King Abdullah and interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar to denounce Iranian "interference" in Iraqi affairs.
Also, the Americans are prodding interim Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi to try to put together a Sunni-dominated party to counter the pro-Iranian Shi'ite alliance.
All these are alienating America from Iraqi Shi'ites, prompting them to align more closely with Iran. If ethnic and sectarian strife splits Iraq, the Shi'ite south would be the natural ally of Shi'ite Iran. If Iraq stays in one piece, the Iranians are likely to exert influence on its politics and policies through its Shi'ite majority.
Iran isn't the only "fox" making hay from the fall of Saddam. The war has mobilized anti-American and antiregime forces in the region to an unprecedented level. Muslim guerrillas from neighboring countries have joined the Iraqi insurgency. Islamist activists have ratcheted up their campaign against Jordanian and Saudi Arabian monarchies, citing these regimes' tacit support for the US invasion of Iraq.
An Arab-American friend who has returned from a tour of the region tells me that in Jordan's cafes and college campuses King Abdullah II is being "openly denounced" as America's "lackey" and "collaborator." My friend had not seen Jordanians criticize the monarchy so harshly and publicly before.
Unprecedented, too, was the recent attempt to stage antigovernment demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. The London-based Movement for Islamic Reforms, which US intelligence sources suspect is linked to Osama bin Laden, called for the protest. Hundreds of activists were preparing to pour into the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah when police dispersed them.
Meanwhile, the US consulate in Jeddah came under a brazen attack from "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," and bin Laden was quick to release an audio tape commending the guerrillas. More ominous is his call to supporters to target America's oil supplies, which prompted a series of attacks on Iraq's oil infrastructure. Bin Laden may have set his eyes on the most vital US interest in the region, which seemed to be safe before the Iraq war.
Maybe America is fighting bin Laden's war, too.
Mustafa Malik, a former research associate at the University of Chicago's Middle East Center, is a Washington journalist.