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January 18-24, 2006

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Iraq Is Not a Small Central American Country

At UCSC talk, Juan Cole will offer informed comment on our Middle Eastern adventures


By Sarah Phelan

He's a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, but in the age of the Internet, Juan Cole is perhaps equally well-known as the moderator of Informed Comment, a blog where readers can find analyses of the Alito Supreme Court nomination as well as the rulings of Afghanistan's new chief justice, who reportedly favors amputating thieves' hands and stoning adulterers to death.

But on Jan. 19, Cole will emerge from cyberspace and materialize at UCSC to talk about the Iraqi elections and the future of America.

Reached by phone in Michigan, Cole--who is seen as a leading American expert on Iraq, the role of the United States and the Iraqi resistance--took a shot at answering the question that continues to baffle anyone who understands the first thing about the Middle East, namely, is it actually possible that the Bush administration ever believed it could win a war in Iraq?

"Most of them had experience of Central America," proffers Cole, who has authored numerous books and articles on Islam and the Middle East. "They thought Iraq would be like Nicaragua, where they got rid of Ortega and the Sandinistas. But Iraq is much bigger, with a population of 25 to 26 million, and geographically is much larger with a different political history."

Cole believes the recent elections in Iraq have confirmed that the Iraqi public has swung in the direction of ethnic and religious politics--a development that doesn't bode well for Iraqi women.

"After the Dec. 15 elections, an Iranian politician described the results as 'an echo of the victory of Khomeini,'" says Cole. "Already women are being harassed in places like Basra, and informal Shiite militias are on patrol, imposing dress codes on women. I think the Shiite and maybe the Sunni ruling parties, too, will move the country towards Islamic law."

Indeed, to Cole's mind, the U.S.-led invasion has strengthened the hand of the Shiite religious forces in the entire reach of the Middle East--a development he believes will place further constraints on the United States in the region--and create a further drag on our economy.

"The geopolitical power of the U.S. has been weakened. If a Shiite victory is unacceptable to Sunni Arabs, then we'll be there for another four years, at the least. And as the U.S. draws down its troops, there's danger of a civil war in Iraq, which would become a major source of instability for the petroleum market, which will lead to increases in gas prices."

Asked if he thought the United States would consider attacking Iran, now that it's broken the U.N. seals on its nuclear enrichment facility, Cole says, "I believe a U.S. military strike against Iran would risk throwing southern Shiite Iraq into instability and fighting. And I don't personally believe that Bush would risk that in an election year, so a lot of this is just saber rattling."


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