Meet Iraq's New Strongman

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It's just like the U.S. Patriot Act, said Iraq's new minister for human rights, in an effort to sell the Western media on the sweeping emergency powers his government had just claimed by its own edict. Cold comfort to the civil liberties lobby in the U.S. no doubt, but actually, the comparison doesn't hold.

Although many in the U.S. Congress may not have actually read the Patriot Act before voting for it — or paid much heed to insurgent auteur Michael Moore as he rode around Washington reading it through the loudspeaker of an ice cream truck — it was, nonetheless, passed by a democratically elected legislature. By contrast, Iraq's new emergency regulation, which allows the executive branch to declare martial law, impose curfews and detain suspects, was simply decreed by an Iraqi government appointed by the U.S. But the fact that the new government in Baghdad seeks tough security measures is no surprise, given the security crisis in Iraq that has show no sign of abating despite last week's hand-over of political authority to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The 138,000 U.S. troops who provide the mainstay of Allawi's security capability report little change in their lot as a result of the handover, and new American casualties are announced on a daily basis.

Indeed, even as the new law was announced, insurgents fought a pitched battle in broad daylight against U.S. forces on the streets of Baghdad, which saw mortar rounds land near the prime minister's residence. Insurgents are mounting as many as 35 attacks a day, and the Iraqi security forces to which the U.S. hopes to transfer more security responsibility in the coming weeks may not be inclined to go toe-to-toe with the insurgents as long as the U.S. is around. Reining in the insurgency remains the toughest challenge, for the simple reason that U.S. forces remain as visible on the streets of Iraq today as they were before the handover. That's bad news for U.S. commanders, who late last year offered the sobering assessment that the insurgency would, in fact, continue until American forces leave Iraq.

Allawi's government is attempting an awesome balancing act. First, it needs to quell or at least contain the insurgents by a combination of strong security measures and political incentives. That's why, in addition to the stick of martial law, the government plans to offer a carrot of a broad amnesty for insurgents who have taken up arms against the U.S.-led occupation forces. Allawi himself has made clear that his government will reach out to Iraqi insurgents who have fought the Coalition for patriotic motives while seeking to isolate and destroy foreign elements such as the network led by the Jordanian jihadist Musab al-Zarqawi. Allawi knows that both the Sunni insurgency and the one waged by supporters of Shiite firebrand Moqtada Sadr have significant popular support, while his own government has yet to win the loyalty of Iraqis.

Domestically, the task is equally daunting, from keeping ethnic factions from turning on one another or, as in the case of the Kurds, trying to break away from the whole project, while at the same time getting the reconstruction program up to speed and proceeding to organize elections to be held in 200 days — which, if they are democratic, will look more than a little threatening to both the Sunnis and the Kurds — or else face the wrath of the Shiite majority.

It's a challenge of a scale that requires leaders who won't flinch from a fight. And that appears to be what the U.S. has chosen in the form of Allawi, who appears to have solid credentials for the role of strongman. Allawi had long been the favored post-Saddam Iraqi ruler of the CIA and State Department — as opposed to the now-disgraced Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi. The reasons lie not so much in any kind of faith in Allawi's credentials as a democrat as they do in the belief that he's best-placed to play the familiar role of pro-U.S. strongman. New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who first broke the Abu Ghraib abuse story, quotes former CIA operative Ruel Gerecht's dark assessment of Allawi's appeal: "His strongest virtue is that he's a thug." Another CIA source admits, in Hersh's story, that Allawi may even have blood on his hands from his days as an operative of Saddam Hussein's intelligence services.

U.S. officials tell the Washington Post that Allawi is "a security prime minister," appointed to bring the chaos in Iraq under control. His appointment is a political gamble: Opinion surveys in Iraq show an overwhelming consensus among Iraqis that their Number 1 priority is restoring some semblance of security in their lives after a year of occupation in which estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties run close to 10,000. If Allawi is able to preside over restoration of a semblance of security, that in itself will build legitimacy and support among Iraqis for his tenure.

The danger, of course, is that security becomes an end in itself, and eclipses other priorities — most importantly the one for which the interim government was ostensibly created, namely to hold an election by next January to replace itself with a democratically chosen administration. Allawi was quoted shortly before the handover as warning that the security crisis could force a postponement of the election. That suggestion was hastily retracted, and it's not hard to see why: Failure to hold the election by next January would likely provoke a mass Shiite uprising against the new government, which it could survive only if the U.S. military was willing to turn its guns on Iraq's majority community. The Shiite religious leadership under Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani had demanded that the U.S. hand over power to an elected government, and accepted the current arrangement under sufferance. They're unlikely to brook any further delay. So, while a large number of Iraqis appear willing to give Allawi a chance to pursue his stated goals, U.S. officials and analysts fear that support could erode very quickly if the insurgency persists, reconstruction efforts continue to lag and progress towards elections is slow.

If all goes well, Allawi may calculate that he could win an election, although he currently languishes far behind most other contenders in opinion surveys. What is less clear is what might happen if Allawi calculates that for security or political reasons, the election must be postponed or truncated. That could leave Washington with the uncomfortable choice it faces in respect of most of its other "strongman" allies in the Arab world — either throwing in its lot with a predictable and friendly authoritarian, or else abandoning him and risking the emergence of a hostile regime, or chaos, or both.

Unlike the neoconservative ideologues at the Pentagon who imagined Iraq as the beachhead of liberal democracy in the Middle East — an idea that remains a mainstay of President Bush's speeches, if not his policies — State Department and CIA types have long been skeptical of the idea that democracy in Iraq as envisaged by the neocons is possible. It's a view bluntly stated by retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, President Bush's former envoy to the Middle East, who savaged the neo-con view of postwar Iraq in a recent speech to defense analysts: "When you look at a country that has never known democracy, that has been in the condition it's been in, that has the natural fault lines that it has, and the issues it has, and to look at the task of reconstructing this country, not only reconstructing it, but the idea of creating Jeffersonian democracy almost overnight, is almost ridiculous." And Britain's top man in Baghdad, Sir Jeremy Greenstock was equally blunt in a recent speech in London: "There is never going to be a Western style democracy in Iraq."

If not democracy, then what? The reason the CIA had Allawi on its payroll in the first place during the 1990s was that he was the point man for efforts to have Saddam Hussein overthrown by his own generals. The idea was to get rid of the Butcher of Baghdad while keeping the rump of his regime in place to stop Iraq splintering into dangerous shards. A kind of Baathism without Saddam, in other words, its premise being that holding Iraq together required a strongman regime, but that such a strongman ought to be a relatively enlightened, pro-Western modernizer rather than an erratic sociopath like Saddam and his sons. In other words, a regime more like the one in Egypt, whose authoritarianism is more predictable: You're tortured only if the secret police suspect you're aligned with a banned (although very popular) Islamist political organization, as opposed to in Saddam's Iraq where you could be tortured to death because the leader's son wanted to rape your wife. There's no question it's an improvement, but lets not kid ourselves that it heralds any kind of sea-change in the politics of the Middle East — nor, for that matter, that it's particularly stable in the long run.