Iraq: Anybody Got a Plan?

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Iraqi police man a checkpoint outside the Japanese base in Samawa, Iraq

If it can't yet point to a happy ending in Iraq, the Bush administration at least needs to show Americans that it has a plan for winning the peace. It was that need that brought Washington's point man in Iraq, Ambassador J. Paul Bremer, rushing home last November for unscheduled consultations at the White House. Back then, the U.S. casualty total was climbing steadily and there was no sign of an end to the insurgency; Capitol Hill was reeling from sticker shock over the administration's $87 billion budget request; the Iraqi Governing Council handpicked by Bremer had failed to achieve legitimacy and was making no progress towards drawing up a new constitution. All of that made Bremer's three-year plan for nurturing Iraqi democracy a luxury the Bush administration could no longer afford. So, not for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration changed its plan for Iraq.

Bremer returned to Baghdad with a new deal: The U.S. would transfer sovereign political authority in Baghdad to an Iraqi provision government by July 1, 2004, by which time it also hoped to have transferred much of the responsibility for maintaining day-to-day order in Iraq to new Iraqi security forces. Recognizing the IGC's legitimacy problem, Bremer proposed that a new government be chosen at regional caucuses convened all across Iraq by bodies picked by the occupation authority.

Bremer's plan aimed to reassure Iraqis, their neighbors and the American electorate that the occupation of Iraq was nearing an end. Three months later, however, Bremer's plan is in serious trouble, and it's far from clear how and by whom a new one will be authored.

Bremer's political headache began when he lost a standoff with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, who insisted that a new Iraqi government must be directly elected rather than selected at caucuses under U.S. control. By demonstrating the overwhelming support for his position on the streets, Sistani won over a majority of the Governing Council and forced Bremer to bring in the United Nations to rule on the viability of elections — and in the process, the Shiite leader appears to have succeeded in giving the writ of the UN greater weight than the Bush administration in determining Iraq's political future. That may be a practical necessity, since Sistani refuses even to meet with U.S. officials.

The result of last week's visit to Iraq by UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi has been to reinforce the demand for elections, although he also appears to have confirmed Bremer's view that a valid poll can't be held before year's end. More importantly, Brahimi also indicated that most Iraqis share Washington's concern to restore their sovereign authority by July 1. Asked about how he plans to resolve the conundrum of to whom the keys should be handed on June 30, Bremer indicated last weekend that he was waiting for the UN's recommendations.

Widespread opposition to Bremer's caucuses plan — even the IGC has now reneged on its support for the procedure — has left it dead in the water. Discussion is currently under way over an alternative, possibly expanding the IGC to include political actors with significant support that are currently outside of it, such as the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The IGC is reportedly also considering the option of a new provisional government being appointed by a national gathering of stakeholders, convened not under the auspices of the U.S. or the IGC, but rather by the UN or the Arab League. Washington's tutelage of Iraq's political transition appears to be drawing quickly to a close, with uncertain political implications. This week, for example, Bremer vowed to veto a move by the current President of the IGC, the Islamist Abdul Hamid, to make Islamic Shariah law the principal source of law in an Iraqi interim constitution. But Bremer's veto, as things stand, expires on June 30.

Handing over power to even a modified version of the IGC is a high-risk strategy, unless it has Sistani's blessing. The caucus plan was adopted precisely because of the IGC's lack of legitimacy, and its internal paralysis that resulted partly from the clash of competing political-ethnic interests. Expanding the IGC could exacerbate such tensions, as each of the ethnic communities currently represented on the Council is already demanding a greater voice.

Upon his departure from Iraq, Brahimi warned of an imminent danger of civil war — an assessment reportedly shared by the CIA station in Baghdad. The Kurds are pushing for recognition of their de facto independence in the north against the nationalist instincts of the Arab majority; but among the Arabs the minority Sunni who have traditionally ruled Iraq appear unwilling to submit to the domination of the Shiite majority that direct democracy would bring. The CPA has used the capture of a document allegedly written by an al-Qaeda associate, Musab al-Zarqawi, to paint the danger of civil war as arising primarily from a diabolical al-Qaeda strategy, but Brahimi warned that the Iraqis were quite capable of getting there by themselves. "Civil wars do not happen because a person makes a decision, 'Today, I'm going to start a civil war' ," he told a media conference. Instead, he said, civil wars evolve "because people are reckless, people are selfish, because people think more of themselves than they do of their country'."

The question of Iraq's security and stability should increasingly, according to last November's plan, be the concern of the newly minted Iraqi security forces. U.S. troops are remain in the country, of course, under a "status of forces" agreement reached with the new Iraqi government, which would have the legal authority to ask them to leave. Uncertainty over the makeup of such a government puts a question mark over the terms on which U.S. forces would remain in Iraq. More immediately, however, the toll of U.S. and Iraqi casualties continues to escalate sharply. January had the second-highest casualty total since the fall of Baghdad last year, and February's death toll reached 237 last weekend. The brazen daylight raid by insurgents on a police station and two other facilities in Fallujah last Saturday graphically underscored doubts over the ability of the Iraqi security forces to take over most of the garrison duties currently being performed by U.S. forces.

IGC officials rushed to blame the Fallujah attack, which killed some 22 Iraqi policemen and wounded scores more, on foreign jihadis, but U.S. military officials debunked that story and revealed that all of the insurgents captured or killed had been Iraqis. The tightly choreographed attacks mark an escalation from simple hit-and-run ambushes to frontal assault, suggesting that the Iraqi security forces may struggle to match the firepower, organization and perhaps also the commitment of the insurgents. Fallujah, of course, had been something of a model for the plan to turn over security responsibility to Iraqis, with U.S. forces having withdrawn from the center of town. By shattering the morale and confidence of the Iraqi forces and highlighting their vulnerability, the insurgents hope to keep U.S. forces engaged in densely populated urban areas where they make easier targets and where counterinsurgency actions always risk alienating the local population.

While moves to loosen the U.S. grip over Iraq's immediate political future remain on track, just how the vacuum left by the planned termination of Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority on June 30 is filled — and how and by whom the security arrangements to guarantee eventual elections and keep a lid on the increasingly worrying centrifugal tendencies — are increasingly open questions. Right now, the old plan (three months old, to be precise) appears to be redundant, but there is no sign yet of any new one. Nor is it clear, yet, what the respective roles of the Bush administration, the United Nations, the Iraqi Governing Council and Ayatollah Sistani might be in formulating a new one.