Iraq: Now For Plan C

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Bremer disputes suggestions that Iraq's governing council is failing

First there was Jay Garner, whose tenure as the U.S. administrator of Iraq lasted all of five weeks. Then came Paul Bremer with Plan B, which involved handpicking 24 Iraqis to sit on an Iraqi Governing Council, to oversee the writing of a new constitution and the holding of elections over a two- to three-year period. But by recalling Bremer for two days of urgent consultations at the White House this week, the Bush administration has signaled that it may be searching for Plan C.

While there's no clarity yet on what proposals Ambassador Bremer will take back with him to Baghdad, there's a consensus in Washington that the current transition program is not working. The escalating security crisis in Iraq has prompted the Pentagon to pursue a strategy of "Iraqification," deploying more and more Iraqis against the insurgency. But for "Iraqification" to have any impact, it will have to be accompanied by a parallel political transition: Iraqis are a less likely to risk their lives defending an occupation authority than they would be to fight for a new Iraqi government.

Taking the Fight to the Enemy

The security crisis in Iraq involves a lot more than simply the death throes of Baathism. Forty U.S. soldiers have been killed in the past 10 days, and each day brings not only an average of 30-35 ambush attacks on coalition troops, but also some new terror outrage or an audacious attack showing the insurgents' growing reach. Wednesday's tally, for example, included eight mortar shells lobbed into the most secure square mile in Baghdad, where the Coalition Provisional Authority is headquartered, and also a truck bombing in Nasiriyah that killed 17 Italian policemen and nine of the Iraqis they had been training. A CIA field analysis first reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that the insurgency is actually growing and attracting new recruits. This assessment, which the Inquirer's sources suggest is confirmed by Bremer, also jibes with a warning to Washington from the British government of Tony Blair. London has reportedly warned Washington that the coalition could face a mass uprising in Iraq if the occupation isn't ended within a year. In other words, the occupation itself has become part of the security problem in Iraq.

While administration officials debate exit strategies, U.S. forces in Iraq are taking the fight to an enemy often difficult to find. Last weekend, a new get-tough policy saw U.S. air strikes in the Sunni Triangle following the downing of a third U.S. helicopter in two weeks. The show of force is designed to deter the locals who have either supported the insurgents or, at least, failed to cooperate with the U.S. forces to weed them out. One obvious danger is that large-scale counterinsurgency operations tend to alienate the local population, and generate support for the insurgency. A second danger is that an escalation of military operations sends a message more widely in Iraq that the outcome of the war itself is not yet settled, which undermines coalition efforts to win the confidence of Iraqis.

Who Wants to Be a Governor?

As the fighting intensifies, the focus of Bremer's two-day huddle at the White House has been on how to establish a sovereign political authority — even a provisional one, like President Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan. The Bush administration remains plagued by internal division over how to proceed in Iraq, with the result being contending answers that range from handing over sovereign authority to the IGC to nixing the Council in favor of an interim government. Bremer's comments before leaving Washington that the next move is up to the IGC suggest he is taking back some form of challenge to a body that had appeared unlikely hold elections by the end of next year. U.S. officials have expressed deep frustration at the failure of the IGC to make progress on the constitutional front or to serve as an authentic Iraqi voice persuading other Iraqis to support U.S. efforts.

The 24-person IGC is certainly an unwieldy instrument of power. It was handpicked by Bremer with a view to representing Iraq's ethnic diversity, but its inclusiveness may actually preclude it from taking decisive action. Its presidency, for example, is rotated on a month by month basis among seven different leaders, each with his own distinct agenda. The IGC's problems, however, are not simply rooted in its cumbersome structure. They reflect an absence of consensus among Iraqis over a post-Saddam order. The Kurds favor a federation that would give them maximum autonomy in northern Iraq, but the Sunnis and Shiites are reluctant to see the country divided. The Sunnis, who make up much of Iraq's technocratic elite, are accustomed to power and privilege way beyond their proportion of the population (some 15 percent), and want maximum protection of their position. But the Shiites seek a democracy that would give them political power commensurate with their two-thirds majority of Iraq's population. The differences are not only over how a new constitution would distribute power, but also over how it ought to be written. The Shiites, backed by even their most moderate and U.S.-friendly clergy, insist that that the constitution-making body be elected by Iraqis — a proposal anathema to the Sunni and Kurdish representatives. And so on. Iraq was traditionally governed by an iron fist from Baghdad; simply putting its fractious components together again requires the forging of a new political consensus that could be years in the making.

Election Days

Now that the U.S. is cracking the whip, however, there's likely to be some movement towards a transitional government in the next year. While the IGC won't necessarily be abandoned, it may be expanded, reorganized, or asked to develop plans for some form of election to appoint an interim government next year. Still, moving quickly toward elections carries its own risks. Many of the 24 Iraqis appointed to the IGC by Bremer would not survive an election process — the CIA analysis reportedly notes that the IGC has failed to win popular support. And respected scholars of political transitions, such as the Carnegie Endowment's Marina Ottaway, have warned that elections themselves often serve to polarize post-conflict societies and generate conflict. Still, the overriding priority for the Bush administration is now to move demonstrably in the direction of ending the occupation regime — the idea is that even if, like in Afghanistan, U.S. troops remain in Iraq to pursue their enemies, the political reins must be handed over to an Iraqi government with some degree of legitimacy among their compatriots.

If holding elections for a transitional authority is risky, then simply appointing one, as in Afghanistan, may be even more so. In Afghanistan, the political process was conducted under UN auspices, and followed months of intense consultation that established a political consensus among all of the country's neighbors (including Iran). While Karzai had no popular constituency inside Afghanistan, he carried a sufficiently broad international backing to allow him to balance the contending claims of contending Afghan warlords. But achieving the Karzai effect in Iraq would likely require a similar consensus from regional stakeholders including the Arab League, Turkey and Iran, and even possibly a UN imprimatur. An Iraqi leader handpicked by Washington alone may be no more likely to achieve legitimacy among his countrymen than a council of 24 Iraqi leaders handpicked by Washington alone has done.

There are no easy options facing the Bush administration in Iraq, and the course correction that will follow Bremer's return to Baghdad may not be the last. But the U.S. administrator's hurried visit suggests that the administration has taken heed of the CIA's reported warning that a course correction is urgently required.