Who Will Run Iraq?

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One power source: Jay Garner talks to reporters in Basra

Friday the UN Security Council receives a draft resolution from the U.S. proposing an end to sanctions against Iraq. Although the proposal offers the UN various advisory roles, Iraq's day-to-day affairs and its immediate political future would be determined by the U.S.-led coalition. France and Russia are expected to hold out for a more direct UN role in overseeing the creation of an Iraqi government.

The current sanctions regime and the oil-for-food program make it illegal to sell (or buy) Iraqi oil on the open market, and UN legal control over the country's oil revenues is the only leverage left to Security Council members who opposed the war. Russian and French economic interests could also be jeopardized if the sanctions were lifted on terms that allowed the U.S. and its partners, or an Iraqi government of their creation, to award oil contracts. On the basis of current Security Council resolutions, the sanctions can only be lifted once UN arms inspectors certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction, and Russia has suggested it will insist on sending Dr. Hans Blix's UNMOVIC team back to Iraq to complete their work. That may turn out to be bargaining position, but the bargaining is likely to be tough — the U.S. draft reportedly includes such sweeteners as provision for the honoring of contracts signed with Russian companies under the oil-for-food program. But it also seeks Security Council authorization for de facto control by the coalition until such time as Britain and France are ready to cede such authority, and the international body is unlikely to grant such a broad mandate.

The very idea of a UN mandate for postwar Iraq may sound somewhat anachronistic in light of the military realities there, but it remains a significant goal not only because President Bush promised his European coalition partners before the war that the UN's blessing would be sought for postwar arrangements, but because it remains key to convincing other governments to share the economic and military load of getting Iraq back on its feet. Some 15 countries sent representatives to a meeting in London Thursday to discuss sending troops for an international stabilization force being initiated by Washington. But some key countries, including Poland which was tapped to control one of three or four security zones into which Iraq would be divided, have insisted that the mission must be mandated by a UN resolution.

While foreign governments wrestled over the terms for the transition in Iraq, in Baghdad the same issue assumed a new intensity. The five opposition groups tapped by General Jay Garner to form the nucleus of a transitional government held a meeting in the city on Thursday. But rather than form a government themselves, the five — the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani; Ahmed Chalabi from the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress; Iyad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National Accord, an exile organization of Iraqi officials who defected from the regime; and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of the Iran-based Shiite organization the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — are calling for a national assembly toward the end of the month to elect an interim government that would serve for two years and organize democratic elections. But given its central role in shaping a new government, the composition of a national assembly remains a source of fierce debate. Aside from the Kurdish groups, three of the "Five" were, until last month, based in exile and their standing among Iraqis is uncertain. Two more organizations may be added to this organizing group — the Dawa organization, a rival Shia Islamist rival to the Supreme Council, but like the SCIRI also backed by Iran; and a Sunni Muslim liberal democratic party. The question they're debating is how an assembly would balance representation of formerly exiled political parties with representatives of those who remained in Saddam's Iraq.

The key to achieving legitimacy in Iraqi eyes may lie with the Shiite majority, and in particular with the Hawza, the national Shiite clerical leadership based at Najaf. The Hawza has been demonstrably the most organized and effective Iraqi social force on the ground in the wake of Saddam's ouster. On their orders, Iraqis in different cities (and in Baghdad's largest neighborhoods) have suppressed looting, mounted security patrols and restored basic services. But the Hawza comprises different factions: Its leader is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who advocates keeping the clergy out of directly political roles. But that view is challenged by the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, acting in the name of his father and uncle, both legendary anti-Saddam clerics murdered by the regime, whose agitation for the creation of an Islamic state may be anathema to Washington. Involvement by the SCIRI and Dawa in the process help give it a strong Shiite presence, but much may yet depend on the response of the Hawza to the national assembly.

The specter of Iranian influence and homegrown anti-American radicalism had reportedly prompted the Pentagon to accelerate the timetable for putting in place a friendly Iraqi leadership — preferably led by its favorite Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi — in order to diminish the period of direct rule by the U.S. military. But the State Department had warned against a rush to install an exile-dominated leadership of uncertain standing among Iraqis. Next week, Garner hands the reins of the transition over to Paul "Jerry" Bremer, a seasoned State Department antiterrorism official tapped to supercede the retired general as U.S. viceroy in Baghdad. And the plans may yet change after that — on any number of fronts.