By Hiwa Osman
Media coverage of Iraqi politics paints a warped picture of the reality inside the country. A serious misunderstanding of Iraq is developing in the West. Muqtada al-Sadr is not a populist; the Najaf standoff has little to do with Iraqi popular will and everything to do with Iranian political muscle flexing.
Unlike those in the international community who suffer from chronic anti-Americanism and those regionally who want to see a theocratic dictatorship in Iraq, many people in Iraq view the showdown in Najaf as one between the interim Iraqi government and al-Sadr's violent militias, and not as one between the Iraqi people and the Americans.
Whether intentionally or not, those who portray al-Sadr as a representative of Iraqi popular will are playing an extremely dangerous game. For the majority of the Iraqi people, he is little more than a low-level cleric cum outlaw who is being exploited by Iran to undermine an emerging Iraqi state.
Opposing the United States or even the new Iraqi interim government is one thing, but providing support for al-Sadr by portraying him as a populist leader is quite another.
In Iraq, people constantly ask themselves one simple question: What if al-Sadr wins? The answer, they know, is that Iraq will end up with a radical Islamist dictatorship devoid of individual liberties and marked by intimidation, arbitrary imprisonment and extra-judicial execution as al-Sadr has already shown he is capable of in areas under his control.
More significantly, any al-Sadr "victory" sends a message to others in the country that they can achieve political goals through violence. This is not the way forward.
Making headlines through the ability to destabilize does not equal broad popular support. As Americans well know, many thousands of unknown men and women are required to keep the peace and uphold the rule of law. But it took only 19 people on September 11 to totally shatter America's sense of security.
Another mistaken belief that anti-U.S. quarters and supporters of Islamic theocracy hold is that those who are in power today in Iraq are the puppets of the United States. They are not. And they enjoy more popularity among the culturally, socially, ethnically and religiously diverse people of Iraq than the likes of al-Sadr.
When the interim government and president were appointed, neither of the two were the choices of the United States or even the United Nations. The dissolved Iraqi Governing Council forced their appointments on the Coalition Provisional Authority and the United Nations. Despite the claims of those who would delegitimize that council as tainted by official U.S. appointment, most Iraqis believe that it was the most representative body that has governed Iraq since the country's inception.
And the resulting new government that the council formed has enjoyed fairly high popular support. Opinion polls at the time showed that.
Today, the general mood in Iraq is still one of giving this government a chance to solve the seemingly unattainable goal of establishing a secure situation.
Furthermore, many mostly non-Iraqis are portraying the Najaf showdown as a pure Iraqi-American affair. It is not. It is a showdown between the interim government and radical elements in Iraqi society who are being manipulated by outside agitators.
Many Iraqis see Iranian mullahs rattling chains in Najaf. It is Iran's way of saying to the interim government that they can create chaos in the country if and when they wish to do so.
Al-Sadr's endless flip-flopping on his demands and conditions indicate that his decision making is not entirely his own. At times, he has changed his position more than three times in one day.
Iran's agitation of the situation comes as a response to various statements by Iraqi officials about Iran's involvement in acts of sabotage in Iraq. Initiating the al-Sadr showdown can be seen as an attempt by Iran to put an Iraqi face on the foreign forces trying to undermine a new system in Iraq.
It is not in Iran's interest, nor in the interest of the autocratic countries of the region, to have a functioning democracy in Iraq. A stable, democratic Iraq will become a haven for the democratic opposition movements in neighboring countries.
Today,democratically minded opposition figures of the Middle East's dictatorships are either silenced by imprisonment, or are in the West, where they can be pointed to as part of the "Western conspiracy" to undermine the development of the Middle East (usually in cahoots with Israel).
Local and international calls for a peaceful resolution of the al-Sadr standoff are supported by most Iraqis. But peace should not be at the expense of undermining the new Iraqi government by turning al-Sadr into a victor.
For better or for worse, the current interim government enjoys much more support than the al-Sadris and that illustrates large popular support for a democratic transition over a theocracy.
The standoff in Najaf represents the first major challenge for the new interim government and its capability to uphold the rule of law.
The international community and those who want to see a democratic Iraq should set their own agendas aside and stand behind the Iraqi government and provide it with political and military support to overcome this crisis and similar crises that may arise in the future.
An al-Sadr victory will be a catastrophe for Iraq and the region.
Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.