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Political change beginning across Middle East

WASHINGTON—Iraqis and Palestinians have voted in free elections. Lebanese have demonstrated peacefully to demand an end to Syrian occupation. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, long-serving rulers have made modest concessions to democracy.

For President Bush and his aides, the rapid-fire cascade of events across the Middle East in recent weeks is further proof that their decision to push democracy in the region and make it a top foreign policy goal was the right one.

Yet it's unclear whether the surprising changes coursing through an energy-rich region full of ethnic and religious conflicts will make the United States safer.

Nor is it clear that the United States can steer the events it helped to unleash in a democratic, peaceful direction.

"The big question is how will they manage the process. Is there a strategy to manage what will likely be very tumultuous changes over the next couple of years?" said Peter Khalil, a former official of the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad, now at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Senior Bush administration officials acknowledge that they've had a string of good news from the Middle East lately, although they realize that there will be tough work and pitfalls ahead.

The problems could include ethnic strife in places such as Lebanon, which fought a 15-year civil war; a violent backlash against democratization by rulers determined to preserve stability; and the democratic election of Islamist groups that are cool, if not hostile, to the United States.

"The major challenge is to continue to support these winds of change in the Middle East" but not "wind up with a situation in specific countries where the movement brings into power people and groups we'd be very uncomfortable with," said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian, now the director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

For Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the most immediate concern is Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad is hinting that he'll bow to U.S., French and Saudi Arabian demands and withdraw some of Syria's 15,000 troops from Lebanon.

That could lead to a power vacuum or even renewed fighting among Lebanon's polyglot communities, which have little in common except their opposition to Syria's heavy hand.

"It's a country with virtually no national figures. They are all sectarian leaders. How does Lebanon consolidate its national identity? The only one was Hariri," said Jonathan Alterman, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He was referring to former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated by unknown assailants last month.

A troop withdrawal also could have unpredictable consequences for Assad's uncertain rule over multiethnic Syria. Despite years of repression, militant Islamists are "still very much present in Syria" in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, Djerejian said.

The Bush administration was heavily criticized for failing to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, despite warnings of potential chaos from intelligence agencies, the military and the State Department.

In a sign of a different approach, Rice is discussing with her European counterparts some sort of international force to help the Lebanese government extend its authority and pave the way for elections scheduled for May.

One possibility is to expand the current 2,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, top U.S. and British officials said.

"It is possible that as part of the phased withdrawal from Lebanon by Syria—it has to be swift but phased—there could be some more peacekeeping troops," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Friday.

Rice also has expanded a new State Department unit, the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, established after the Iraq war to deal with post-conflict situations globally.

Rice, in a television interview Friday, acknowledged challenges ahead.

"It's also important to recognize that there is hard work ahead, that this will not necessarily unfold easily. There are regimes that will try and frustrate these opportunities that are there for the people of the Middle East," she told Jim Lehrer of PBS's "The NewsHour."

Rice also said it's important that Washington not be seen as gloating.

"This is not America's revolution. This is not America's sense of empowerment. In order for this to work, it has to be the sense of empowerment and change from the people of the region."

The United States and its allies should provide "mechanisms and forums for people to express themselves," she said.

Rice's point person is Liz Cheney, the No. 2 official in State's Middle East bureau and a daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney.

There's no sign that Bush, Rice and other administration officials are planning to throttle back their campaign for change in the Middle East.

One skeptical State Department official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said Rice's approach is simplistic, calling it "to hell or democracy."

Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht said the Bush team has "not by any means thought out a long-term strategy."

But Gerecht, now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said holding back would be a mistake.

"The greatest danger now for the administration is that it will not push forward. It will get nervous. The realist tendencies ... will say we want to have managed evolution," he said. "That's music to the ears of people like (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak. They don't want to have evolution at all."

But others—mindful of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution—say the Bush administration should take care not to push Mubarak, the Saudi royal family or other autocratic Middle Eastern rulers too far, too fast, lest they be replaced by anti-Western Islamists.

In many countries in the region, regimes have relentlessly harassed liberal and moderate opposition figures, leaving little middle ground and allowing religious extremists to organize, said Brookings' Khalil.

"You can push changes and also support changes that occur internally," he said. "But you also need a strategy in place that looks at all the consequences and have contingency plans."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050302 Arab democrat

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