Rolling the Dice in Iraq

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Iraqi Chief Justice Midhat al-Mahmoudi (left), interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer look over a document for transferring national sovereignty in Iraq

If Iraqi history was made Monday in Baghdad, nobody told the Iraqis. Literally: The transfer of political authority in Iraq from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to a largely U.S.-appointed Interim Government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was brought forward two days early to avoid its moment in the headlines being bathed in blood by insurgent violence — the five-minute event attended only by handful of participants, aides and journalists passed in secrecy deep inside the "Green Zone" which separates government and Coalition facilities from the ever-dangerous streets of the capital. Still, Allawi proclaimed it "a historical day," and pledged to take aggressive steps to restore Iraq's security in the face of relentless insurgent violence.

The Kurds
They make up 25 percent of the country and control the northern third
The Shi'ite Mainstream
They have the greatest numbers of all the groups
The Shi'ite Radicals
Moqtada Sadr's militia and its supporters
Ahmed Chalabi
Though out of favor with the Pentagon, he still wields influence
The Sunni Insurgents
The fighters behind the Sunni Triangle chaos
The Interim Government
Iyad Allawi now has the official reins

So dire is the security situation bequeathed by 15 months of occupation that it not only proscribed the hand-over ceremonies — it would have been tempting fate to hold it on the appointed day, more so to actually invite Iraqis to attend the event — but it also looks set to be the overarching priority of the new government. Indeed, attacks on Coalition forces and foreigners in Iraq average around 40 a day, while terror strikes on Iraqi civilians have become an almost daily reality. Insurgent violence has not only overshadowed Iraq's political transition; it has choked the economic reconstruction as well. Electricity output is only at two thirds of its target level, while oil exports have been repeatedly interrupted by sabotage. A substantial portion of money allocated for reconstruction today is spent on hiring security for those doing the work.

By handing the reins to Allawi's government, the U.S.-led Coalition whose 150,000 troops will continue to provide the bedrock of security is hoping to put an Iraqi face on the enterprise. The hope is that Iraqi soldiers and policemen, who have in many instances been reluctant to be seen as fighting on the side of the occupation, can be motivated to tackle the various insurgencies in the name of an authentically Iraqi authority.

Whether or not Iraqis accept the new government as an authentic steward of their aspirations will depend on what it delivers in the realm of security and self-government. Allawi's government takes office facing the same legitimacy challenge as its predecessor, the Iraqi Governing Council, in that both bodies were appointed largely by outsiders rather than elected by Iraqis themselves. But even though former members of the IGC play a dominant role in the new governing arrangement, there remains a crucial difference: the new Interim Government has a limited mandate — it is not empowered to enact or change basic laws, and it's primary function is to facilitate and organize elections to choose its successor within six months. And it is the promise of imminent elections to replace it, rather than the makeup of the Interim Government itself, that has earned the process the consent of the spiritual leadership of Iraq's Shiite majority.

Allawi has left no doubt that security will be his top priority, and he has promised tough measures in its pursuit, even suggesting that his government may adopt emergency measures akin to martial law, such as curfews and bans on demonstrations, in the hope of suppressing violence. Last week, the Prime Minister even suggested that the security crisis could force a delay in the election, although on Monday he retracted, insisting that his government will hold elections on January 2. Even though the ongoing violence — and the tough measures Allawi has promised to deal with it — are not conducive to holding a successful election, any move to delay a vote may provoke on a crisis that could bring down interim government and even presage the breakup of the country. That's because while the Sunni insurgents who oppose an election that would empower the Shiite majority are capable of brutal disruption of Iraqi political life, they don't have the capacity to overthrow the government. But the government would be far more vulnerable to mass demonstrations and insurrection by the Shiite majority, for whom the demand for a democratic election is sacrosanct. Delaying the election may be a riskier proposition than actually holding one. But even if the poll date remains firm, the jockeying of rival parties for position in the election campaign could produce confrontations of a more complex nature. For example, the movement of Moqtada Sadr, the firebrand Shiite rebel cleric who has waged a guerrilla war against Coalition forces since April, has been invited to participate in the committee to select delegates for a national congress to advise the new government, but has refused to accept only one seat on that committee on the grounds that it represents many more Iraqis than some who will sit on the same committee. Some of this type of bargaining, over the next six months, could occur on the streets, raising new security problems.

The immediate priority facing both the new government, and the U.S. commanders on the ground, is bringing the insurgency under control. Just as the Coalition forces are hoping that the new government puts an Iraqi face on security operations, so will the new government be relying on those forces, principally the U.S., to be the most important prop of its own security strategy. But how the sovereign government and the U.S. forces that operate on its turf are to coordinate decisions on security matters has, for the most part, yet to be worked out. As much as it depends on U.S. security backing, the government's credibility in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis depends in no small part in demonstrating its independence from the U.S. Nor does the U.S. want to find itself continuing to police the streets of Iraq's cities as it has done for the past 15 months. The answer to both problems, of course, is the transfer of much of the security responsibility to Iraqi security forces.

That process is currently behind schedule — the army is only one third of the size it had been projected to have achieved by this point, and police training and capability is seriously lacking. U.S. efforts, possibly assisted by NATO, will be intensified in coming months. But Allawi has some ideas of his own that are somewhat at odds with the script followed by the U.S. over the past year. He has been fiercely critical of Bremer's decision last year to summarily dissolve the Iraqi military, and has said he plans as quickly as possible to reverse its effect by quickly remobilizing and rearming some divisions of the old army.

But the security challenge in Iraq has been less about getting men armed and into uniform, than about ensuring they are trained, and more importantly, loyal to the political leaders directing their commanders. The problem at Fallujah and countless other instances where Iraqi soldiers and policemen refused to fight insurgents was not that they were inadequately equipped or trained; it was that they were not willing to fight other Iraqis on behalf of the occupation. To the extent that the new government is able to isolate the insurgents from the broader population, the hand-over of sovereignty could go along way to transfer the security burden to Iraqis. But if, instead, the new government remains isolated then the strains and fissures at work in broader Iraqi society are likely to be mirrored in the security forces.

Despite the considerable risks attached to the transition process he's leading — including direct threats on his life — Allawi remains unruffled. That may be because he is widely viewed both in Iraq and abroad as a pragmatic "strongman" type ruler, rather than a Jeffersonian democrat. Himself a former Baathist intelligence operative, he insisted for much of his three decades in exile that the only way to change Iraq was by lopping off the head of the regime but maintaining much of its administrative bureaucracy and security personnel. To that end, he worked — for some time as a CIA asset — on plans to foment a coup among Baathist generals. Allawi's history, and his pronouncements on martial law and cracking down on the insurgency suggests he may remain inclined towards the "strongman" route, and if he succeeds in restoring a measure of security and stability to the daily life of ordinary Iraqis he may well be rewarded for it at the polls. Despite the official rhetoric from Washington and London on Iraq's future, Britain's erstwhile top man in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, last week offered the blunt assessment that "there is never going to be a Western-style democracy in Iraq." The danger, however, is that if Allawi finds himself at odds with large sections of his own people, the U.S. could find itself in an uncomfortable position of having to defend an unpopular regime. That danger certainly increases to the extent that elections are postponed or placed in doubt. But Allawi clearly understands the need to win allies quickly among those who could cause him the most problems — not only has he affirmed that elections will be held, but he has also made clear that former Baathists, as long as they have no blood on their hands, could have an important role to play in his Iraq.

Much now hinges on Allawi's ability to balance, confront, accommodate, console and placate the competing interests of a diverse group of Iraqi constituencies who now sense that the future is in play. Because one of the defining features of the current transition is that there is no clear Plan B