Letting Go of Iraq

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IN CHARGE, FOR NOW: Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and President Ghazi al-Yawar

The U.S. script for Iraq's transition is clear. The new caretaker government will assume sovereign powers from the Coalition Provisional Authority on July 1, while U.S. troops remain to provide security. That government will spend much of its time preparing for elections to be held six months from now. That contest will produce a government with a one-year mandate to draw up a new constitution which will be put to the vote in a referendum in October 2005, and fresh elections will be held three months later for a permanent government — after which most U.S. troops will leave Iraq.

But various Iraqi factions have scripts of their own, often at odds with the U.S. narrative, and events of recent weeks suggest Washington's control over the project may be diminishing. The experience of Lakhdar Brahimi is instructive: The UN envoy lashed out bitterly on Thursday, saying that U.S. envoy Paul Bremer allowed him to be sidelined by the Iraqi Governing Council over the selection of the two key positions of President and Prime Minister. Brahimi had actually proposed dissolving the IGC and replacing it with a caretaker government headed by politically disinterested technocrats. Instead, the IGC appears to have had remarkable success in moulding the interim government in its own image, overruling (with U.S. support) Brahimi's pick for Prime Minister, and then turning on Washington to nix Bremer's (and Brahimi's) choice of president.

The IGC's success in defying Washington and Brahimi in the political process may be an echo of recent events on the military front, as the U.S. shifts focus toward an exit strategy. The tactical agreements reached with insurgents in Fallujah, Najaf and elsewhere reflect a recognition by U.S. commanders that the insurgencies are too deeply rooted in the Iraqi population to be defeated militarily; instead, they're being accommodated on the basis of a shifting set of rules. So, too, on the political front: Brahimi's proposal to eliminate the IGC floundered as the U.S. priority for a rapid transfer of sovereignty gave its members every incentive to stand up to the Americans in pursuit of their own interests.

The result of the IGC's dominant role in shaping the new government is that it may inherit many of the legitimacy problems that forced the U.S. to seek an alternative in the first place. Brahimi's first advice to the new government was to open negotiations with some of the insurgent groups with a view to giving them a stake in the political process. "I think it's a little bit too easy to call everybody a terrorist," he warned. "And I think that if you find there are people [among the those fighting the occupation] who are not terrorists who are respectable, genuine Iraqi patriots, you must find a way of talking to them."

Questions over the new government's legitimacy were raised even more forcefully by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme Shiite religious authority who remains easily the most influential figure in Iraq. Sistani bemoaned the fact that the new government was appointed rather than elected, and stated that "it does not represent all slices of Iraqi society and all political forces in an appropriate way." The Interim Government could only gain popular acceptance, he said, if it achieved full sovereignty for Iraq from the get-go, "unconstrained in any regard, whether political, economic, military, or security-related," and "effaced all signs of occupation." It would also be judged on its ability to provide security and basic services to the citizenry, and most important, by the extent to which it makes "first-rate preparation for general elections, and [keeps] to the appointed date, which is at the beginning of the coming new year according to the Christian calendar, so that a national assembly can be formed that is not bound by any of the decisions issued in the shadow of the Occupation."

Sistani's script has the new government going to the UN to demand full control even over those aspects of security and economy that the U.S. had hoped to keep in U.S. or international hands, and then just as quickly moving to make itself redundant by holding national elections. The Interim Government is moving to pursue the first objective, with its foreign minister, Hoyshar Zebari, currently in New York negotiating for maximum sovereignty to be granted in the Security Council resolution. Whether it will pursue the goal of elections in a six-month time-frame with the vigor demanded by Sistani remains to be seen. And, of course, he has made plain that he will not only endorse it tearing up the Bremer constitution as soon as possible; he says its very legitimacy depends on it.

The effective basis of central authority after June 30 will remain the 138,000 U.S. troops and their 17,000 coalition partners, although the handover cedes control of the political space to the contending Iraqi factions. Having separated security control from political control, the U.S. has opened up a potential conflict between the two spheres as Iraqi politicians seek greater influence over the foreign troops within their sovereign boundaries. While the onset of sovereignty brings closer the process of reckoning among rival Iraqi contenders for power. But the past week's displays of ritual defiance of the U.S. even by the government it appointed suggest that the coin of the realm in the "new" Iraqi politics remains an Iraqi nationalism measured by the extent to which contenders for power can show themselves, in Iraqi eyes, to be standing up to the Americans.

Still, that will only last so long. The holding of elections will mark the true test for those who claim power in Iraq, which is why — as Sistani's statement makes clear — the new government will be quickly held to account for any real or perceived malingering. But the transfer of sovereignty will have put the government beyond U.S. or international reproach on that score. The timing and modalities of elections will have become strictly an Iraqi domestic affair. Of course, the U.S. will retain strong levers of influence — its military presence that will remain the basis of the new government's security, and the largest American embassy in the world which will control the purse strings of the lion's share of the reconstruction budget (which as things stand will come from Washington). But those are, at best, imperfect, even clumsy means of influencing events in Iraq, and using them as such runs the risk of an even more dangerous nationalist backlash.

Having formally ceded control over Iraq's political development to Iraqis, the U.S. military may be more inclined to allow the internal power struggles among rival Iraqi factions take their course, and confine its troops to the function of protecting the new government and the country's infrastructure. One problem, though, is that some Iraqi factions clearly see their own path to power as involving continued attacks on Coalition forces. They'll seek to paint the new government as U.S. puppets and continue attacking U.S. forces in the hope of provoking more Fallujahs and Najafs, large-scale security operations that inevitably turn much of the civilian population against the Americans and those perceived to be working with them. In the event of a breakdown between the Interim Government and Ayatollah Sistani and his supporters over the holding of elections, the resulting civil conflict would create an even more complex set of challenges for the Coalition forces.

It's conventional wisdom today that the June 30 hand-over is unlikely to change much on the security level — but on the political front it signifies an end to the U.S. role in choreographing the transition. That brings the hope of Iraqi democracy, but also the multiple perils that arise from intra-Iraqi political competition, both to the Iraqis themselves and to the American and allied soldiers there to provide for their security over the next two years.