Iraq Hand-Over Plan Faces Sharp Challenges

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Portuguese military police gear up after arriving at their camp in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah

President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair plan to devote most of their time together in London this week to discussing Iraq, and there's certainly plenty to talk about. Despite — or, perhaps, because of — last weekend's agreement between the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority to transfer sovereign political control to an Iraqi transitional government on July 1, 2004, the coalition's immediate plans in Iraq are far from clear. One set of challenges concerns the inevitable intra-Iraqi political conflicts that will be sharpened by the process of choosing the provisional government, but even more vexing are the questions of how the political process will relate to the escalating counterinsurgency war currently being waged by U.S. forces — and how or whether the U.S. military role will change next July.

The new political plan is a major roll of the dice for Washington. The harsh reality of the escalating insurgency has forced the Bush administration to abandon its program for direct U.S. supervision of a slow and thorough transition to Iraqi democracy. Instead, sovereign authority and control of the transition will be placed in the hands of a government chosen by Iraqis — even if the "electorate" is confined to elites vetted by Iraqis previously chosen by the U.S. to run various local, provincial and national councils.

The new government will be chosen by 250-seat national assembly chosen by "Governate Selection Caucuses" in each of the country's 18 governates (or provinces), each of which will be allocated one seat for every 100,000 citizens resident in that province. But the citizens won't get to vote; that will be left to a handful of delegates admitted to each "Selection Caucus." The delegates at each caucus will be chosen by an organizing committee comprising five representatives of the Bremer-appointed Iraqi Governing Council; five representatives from the coalition-appointed provincial council and one each from five coalition-appointed town councils. To attend a nominating convention, an Iraqi citizen will need the votes of 11 of the 15 members of the organizing committee in his or her province.

The format leaves considerable power in the hands of those previously selected by the U.S. to serve in the various councils. Even then, however, it could be a shambolic process: the political differences that paralyzed the Iraqi Governing Council will only be exacerbated now that the IGC's component parts are forced into open competition with one another for seats in the new assembly. Their political survival and prosperity now depends on their ability to stack the provincial nominating conventions with their supporters. For some, like the Kurdish parties that have a strong regional base, it's a relatively easy path. But for others, like the Pentagon-favored Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, which appears to have no significant regional or popular base, it may be a moment of truth.

The new plan is designed to widen participation in the political transition, in order to bolster its legitimacy among ordinary Iraqis as a counterweight to the insurgency. In the best-case scenario, it will draw into the political process the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr, the popular firebrand Shiite cleric who has agitated against the U.S. occupation. Sadr has welcomed Washington's change of direction, and moderated his tone lately — partly, perhaps, in response to fears that the U.S. may arrest him, but also perhaps because his movement, which dominates the Shiite slums of East Baghdad, has much to gain from a more democratic political process. There is also speculation by U.S. officials that Iran may be leaning on Sadr to cool things down, although the picture from Tehran is ambiguous — hard-line spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini last Friday urged Iraqis to resist the occupation, but the government of President Mohammed Khatami has been openly supportive of the IGC.

British officials are warning that defeating the insurgency requires more than a military response, and that more has to be done to accommodate the political aspirations of the Sunni community, in which the guerrillas have found succor and support. Despite comprising only 15 percent of the population, Sunnis are accustomed to a dominant role in the country's political and technocratic elite, and that role has come under threat with the prospect of a more democratic political order. Their influence has already been eroded by U.S. edicts barring senior Baathists from key positions, and dissolving the Iraqi military whose officer corps had been predominantly Sunni. Some U.S. officials are suggesting that the CPA will try to screen out former Baathists from the new political structures, but the top British official with the CPA is suggesting, instead, that it may be advisable to allow the Baath Party to reconstitute itself and join a peaceful political process. Washington's hawks — and many on the IGC — may take some convincing.

While Bremer finesses the political plans in consultation with the IGC, dealing with the insurgency is the province of the U.S. military, and its new approach could be dubbed "Shock and Awe II." U.S. forces are raining down everything from 500-pound bombs to satellite-guided missiles and artillery fire on houses, fields and warehouses believed to be used by guerrillas — not that the guerrillas are present at the time, it's principally a display of firepower intended to cow the resistance and its supporters into submission. To the same end tanks parade slowly through the streets of Tikrit, helicopter gunships blast buildings in Baghdad and the homes of suspected guerilla fighters are demolished, Israeli-style, by military sappers. Overkill? Of course. The whole point is to put on a fireworks display so terrifying that it makes resistance seem futile. But "Shock and Awe" had little effect the first time around, and there's little reason to believe it will snuff out the insurgency — indeed, even amid the awesome display of firepower, some U.S. military officers on the ground expect that the insurgency will continue until the U.S. forces leave.

While Bremer's plan envisages closing down the Coalition Provisional Authority on June 30 next year, what is less clear are the plans for the U.S. military. Fearing that the hand-over plan may signal a precipitous exit by the U.S., President Bush has rushed to reassure Iraqis that the U.S. military will stay on in Iraq even after the new government takes over. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made the same point in even more muscular terms, suggesting that the political transition is a "separate track" that had nothing to do with U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, and that the U.S. would not be leaving any time soon. But, on paper at least, the political plan is to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis, which would mean that the question of whether the U.S. stays and the rules governing their behavior if they do, would have to be made by the new Iraqi provisional government. The Bremer-IGC agreement requires that the U.S. and the current Governing Council make an agreement on this question by next March, although this could be renegotiated by the incoming government.

Key members of the IGC have already suggested that once an Iraqi government is in place, they would expect the U.S. to withdraw entirely from Iraqi cities and confine themselves to policing the country's borders, while Iraqi security forces take charge of domestic security. Others have even suggested that one a new government is empowered, U.S. troops remaining in Iraq should operate under UN authority. The U.S. would certainly prefer the more limited security role envisaged by some IGC members — that's precisely why it's rushing 10,000 Iraqi security personnel a week through a rudimentary training regimen, with a view to handing over many of the security functions that currently leave U.S. soldiers vulnerable. But there is, at the same time, a war on, and the insurgents are unlikely to give a new provisional government a chance. The recent experience in the town of Samara may be instructive: After U.S. forces withdrew to a garrison a few miles out of town, insurgents quickly overran the base of the Iraqi security forces, necessitating a quick return by the Americans to disperse them.

Despite the best intentions of the U.S. planners, it may well take a lot longer than nine months before the Iraqi security forces — the overwhelming majority of them policemen rather than soldiers — recruited by the U.S. are ready to take on the insurgents who are holding their own against the world's strongest army. And that will leave the U.S. forces shouldering the bulk of the counterinsurgency duties. But even many pro-U.S. Iraqi politicians appear to believe that the heavy U.S. presence in their cities, and their actions in pursuit of the insurgents, tend to amplify support for the insurgency. An escalation of fighting between U.S.-led forces and the insurgents could undermine the effort to build legitimacy for the political process building up to a hand-over. Which is why the insurgents can be expected to do whatever they can to escalate their offensive in the coming months.

The key feature of the new plan announced last weekend by Bremer was the adaptability it reflected. Plan A and B had failed, and the U.S. was ready to absorb some of the lessons and try Plan C. As that takes shape in the face of anticipated adversities, it may well morph into Plan D — which, following the "Afghan model" widely touted in support of the most recent changes, would presumably involve a greater UN role in supervising the political transition.