Bush's Big Iraq 'To-Do' List

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Brahimi speaks at a UN security meeting in Rome

With the planned hand-over of symbolic "sovereignty" to an Iraqi government only 10 weeks away, the U.S. "to-do" list in Iraq seems impossibly vast. The occupation authority has to find an Iraqi government; determine where its own authority will end and the Iraqis' will begin; win international backing for the new arrangement and placate those in Washington and Baghdad disappointed by the outcome. Oh, and also, prevail militarily against insurgent challengers at Fallujah, Najaf and elsewhere.

None of these things has yet been achieved, of course, and the result may be simply to limit the significance of whatever transpires on June 30. The violence had once been portrayed as the darkness-before-dawn spike to be expected before the hand-over starts Iraq's bright post-Saddam future; now nobody is expecting that the fighting will die down after a new government is installed. And running through the "to-do" list, it's not hard to see why:

Fallujah: Delaying the Inevitable

Despite repeated attempts to negotiate a solution to the standoff in the hotbed of Sunni resistance to the Coalition, Tuesday's renewed outbreak of fighting appeared to point to the inevitability of a military showdown. Having gone in hard initially in response to the killing of four American private security operatives, the Marines were pulled back and negotiations opened after the reported killing of hundreds of Iraqi civilians prompted outrage even among Washington's closest allies in Baghdad. Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi, who sat alongside First Lady Laura Bush during the State of the Union address, called the Marines' operation "illegal and unacceptable." By continuing to pursue a military victory through applying overwhelming force to the insurgents in the town, the U.S. risked losing its already fragile grip on Iraqi hearts and minds.

More than a week of negotiations, however, have produced very little. The insurgents have mocked the agreement with local religious and tribal leaders under which they were expected to turn in their heavy weaponry, and have continued to attack U.S. positions. U.S. field commanders have little confidence that their negotiations, and plans such as the deployment of joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols, will resolve the standoff. That's hardly surprising: For insurgents willing to risk their lives by attacking the overwhelmingly superior firepower of the U.S., there appears to be little incentive to surrender. Their leadership is plainly well aware of the political risks attached to the U.S. making a full-blown military effort to subdue the city, and that may be exactly what they're trying to provoke, rather than allow themselves to become isolated from the civilian population. For the U.S. forces, Fallujah may have become a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't equation. With the political damage already done by the earlier standoff, the logic of deploying superior force to eliminate a military challenge will likely prevail sooner or later. And, in the interim, the U.S. occupation authority has taken steps such as the reversal of a policy to deny government jobs to all former members of the Baath party, and the reinstatement of key officers of Saddam's old army, to signal the Sunni population that they have a stake in a post-Saddam Iraq in the hope of diluting the symbolic power of the standoff at Fallujah.

Najaf: Will Moqtada Take the Initiative?

The Shiite clerical establishment at Najaf would like nothing more than to see the radical firebrand Moqtada Sadr take his militia and his confrontation with the Americans out of town. But as much as they loathe Moqtada as an upstart troublemaker, even the most moderate among them are fiercely opposed to any U.S. military operation against him in the Shiite holy city. Everyone from Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the moderate elder of the Iraqi clerics on whose consent the entire transition process rests, to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN diplomat to whom the Bush administration is looking to devise a political formula that will succeed where Washington's have failed, have warned the U.S. against sending troops into the city. It's precisely because of the Americans' difficulties in risking an invasion of Najaf that Moqtada and his Mahdi militia holed up there in the first place.

The preferred option of U.S. commanders there appears to be maintaining the siege, in the hope that the internal dynamic of the Shiite community may see the Sadrists become isolated in the seminary city in which they are, for the most part, outsiders. That's a safe bet, but only to the extent that the U.S. refrains from acting against him. That may also be why Sadr has bucked negotiations and declined the suggestion that he go into exile in Iran until an Iraqi government takes power, and instead launched repeated attacks on U.S. positions on the edge of town, such as the one in which 67 of his men were killed Tuesday. The political calculus will likely prompt the U.S. to extend the siege, but if Sadr believes that the end result will be his arrest by Coalition forces, he may choose once more to initiate a battle, as he did when he launched his uprising in response to a warrant for his arrest. Confrontation at Najaf carries the risk of a wider Shiite uprising against the U.S. forces. Although Moqtada Sadr does not represent a majority of Shiites and is loathed by the clerical establishment, his path of confrontation has struck a chord among significant sections of the Shiite urban poor. Even among his detractors in the clergy, it's not clear that hostility towards Moqtada is greater than antipathy towards the Coalition. The moderate leadership around Sistani wants Moqtada handled with kid gloves — and more importantly, it wants its own grievances with the U.S.-authored interim constitution to be resolved.

UN Calls the Shots?

Having failed in repeated attempts to author its own transition plan capable of delivering Iraqi support and acquiescence, the Bush administration has now turned to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to come up with a plan — and President Bush has made clear that he'll pretty much support whatever Brahimi decides. But as much as the administration is now depending on the efforts of the Algerian diplomat who reported back to the UN Security Council Tuesday, Brahimi is in no sense a servant of the U.S. His views on the situation in Iraq are at odds with the U.S. on the question of using force at Fallujah and Najaf, and he angered Israel and its supporters this week by describing Israeli policies and their support by the U.S. as "the great poison in the region" that complicates his work. Brahimi has also been attacked by former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi Governing Council — the IGC figure least likely to be included in Brahimi's list for a provisional government — for being an "Arab nationalist." Then again, the U.S. is unlikely to find anyone capable of arbitrating the increasingly complex politics of Iraq at the same time as professing enthusiasm for either Mr. Chalabi or Israel. And the fact that it took a personal intervention by President Bush to persuade Brahimi to accept the assignment shows the administration sees the 70-year-old Algerian diplomat as its last best hope for achieving some kind of political consensus among Iraqis.

Still, the Bush administration appears to be in crsisis-management mode over Iraq rather than committed to a clear policy, and it's not yet a safe bet that the administration hawks around Cheney and Rumsfeld won't push back against the plan to put the UN's man in charge of shaping Iraq's interim government. Nor is the Iraqi Governing Council, whose dissolution Brahimi is recommending, will go quietly. Some, like Chalabi, whose limited political influence in Iraq appears to be entirely dependent on the favor he enjoyed in Washington and his ability to parlay that among other Iraqis on the Governing Council, have made clear they plan to fight against any effort to dissolve the IGC and put the UN in charge of picking a replacement.

Is Sovereignty Divisible?

Having originally proclaimed its intention to hand "full sovereignty" back to Iraqis on June 30, U.S. officials have been backpedaling rapidly in recent weeks, making clear the envisaged "sovereignty" would be partial at best. That's because a new Iraqi government won't control any of the armed forces within its borders, and it may not have the power to enact new laws or reverse those proclaimed by the occupation authority. That, say U.S. officials, is because the primary purpose of a new government is simply to organize elections scheduled for next January. But in the absence of an electoral law, and in light of the fierce opposition by Sistani to the minority veto provisions of the interim constitution that he says has no legitimacy, the June 30 handover may simply complicate the lines of political conflict. Control over all the country's security forces will be in the hands of General John Abizaid, while the purse strings of the most significant section of government revenue may be held by presumptive U.S. ambassador John Negroponte. The plan also reopens a diplomatic dimension to the struggle over Iraq, since the U.S. will be seeking a new UN Security Council resolution authorizing the changes, which may be necessary to stop a number of the Coalition countries from withdrawing their troops in the summer, let alone attracting any new ones. Member states are likely to push for greater sovereign power and a greater role for the UN in driving the process — and UN officials such as Brahimi report not to Washington, but to the Security Council.

Beyond June 30

Regardless of the shape and face of the authority installed on June 30, it's a relative certainty that the violence of the past year is likely to continue. The Iraqi government being installed is, by definition, a lame duck, since its primary function is to replace itself by organizing elections to choose a legitimate government. And even before any of the political questions over the election process and the constitutional rights of the victors come into play, the factor determining whether or not the elections actually occur is the level of security in Iraq — in other words, regardless of the existence of an interim government, the contest determining Iraq's immediate future will remain one fought largely between the insurgents and the U.S. military.