Letter from Saddam Dear President Bush

Tips for President Bush on understanding and running Iraq from one who, in retrospect, knows. THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Memo to: President Bush, the White House

From: Saddam Hussein, in a Baghdad basement

Well, you sure ruined my birthday. . . . O.K., you won, and your prize is Iraq. Are you ready for it? I don't think so. Truth is, I hope you fail. But because my people have suffered enough, I'll give you a few tips on how to run this place, before you make a total mess:

(1) Yes, Iraq was the way it was, in part, because I was the way I was — and I was a bad boy. But what you're seeing now is that I was the way I was, in part, because Iraq was what it is — a very difficult place to rule without an iron fist. You see, I know the Iraqi people didn't want me. And you will soon discover they don't want you. The big question here has always been: Do they want each other? Can Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis find a way to live together without an iron fist holding them together? Maybe, but they're not going to find it on their own. They are going to need a firm hand guiding them. You need to have a very clear idea of where you want to take this place, because, trust me, if you don't, others will.

(2) If you want to build a self-governing authority here, you had better understand that "shock and awe" is not just for war-making. It's an everyday tool for running this place. Why did it take you two weeks to throw out that bozo who declared himself mayor of Baghdad? What about all the others? You now have armed gangs or Shiite clerics grabbing control all over the country. You thought that you were just going to decapitate my army and then rely on it to run the place for you. But the whole army collapsed instead, and you don't have enough troops here to fill the security vacuum. So when a few of your guys come under fire, they panic and start shooting up the place. I ran Iraq with an iron fist. You're trying to run it on the cheap with an iron finger. No way. This ain't Norway here, pal. Your powerlessness will scare people here much more than your power.

(3) When you broke my army, you broke the most important secular institution in the country, and the clerics are rushing to fill the void. Some are O.K., and some are bad news. Since the Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq, if you're going to let the people here rule, that means the most important question for you is: Who dominates the Iraqi Shiite community? Not only is the future of Iraq at stake in the answer, but also, to some extent, the future of Iran.

How so? Remember, the real academic and spiritual center of Shiism is the Iraqi town of Najaf, not the Iranian city of Qom. Qom is a backwater that became religiously important only because I crushed my Shiites, while Khomeini created a Shiite theocracy in Iran.

Most Iraqi Shiite spiritual leaders in Najaf have long opposed Khomeini's notion that Shiite clerics should be in power. They think this has corrupted the clergy in Iran, angered the people and driven young Shiites away from their religion. You've now set off a fight for control of Najaf, between those Iraqi Shiite leaders who believe in the separation between mosque and state, and the pro-Iranian clerics who want to run Iraq Khomeini-style. That's why the Iranians are so concerned about what's happening here. They know if Najaf re-emerges as the center of Shiism — and if it's dominated by Iraqi ayatollahs who don't believe that the clergy should be in politics — the claim of the Iranian clergy to remain in power will be weakened.

This is the most important power struggle in the Middle East today. For now, the Iraqi Shiite clergy in Najaf are weak. They don't have many senior clerics. I kept it that way. But you can't just install your own Iraqi Shiite leaders. They will have to emerge on their own. You need to create the conditions in Najaf whereby students can come back and the natural Iraqi-Arab Shiite traditions can flower again to counter the Iranians.

(4) Always remember: This is an Arab country. Iraqis want to be first-class Arabs, not second-class Americans. If you want to build a legitimate, moderate political center here, you need to enlist some help, and some cover, from Arab states and the U.N. Iraqis will eventually want their parties and leaders legitimized by the Arab world and media. They won't want to be seen as U.S. stooges. They don't watch Fox News here.

Mr. Bush, I know you're wondering why I did not do more to avoid this war, which ended my political life. What in the world was I thinking? Who was I listening to? The answer is: I was listening only to myself. Don't make my mistake.

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