Re-United Nations

U.S. admits U.N. role necessary for laying the electoral groundwork in Iraq

Ian Williams

Kofi Annan.

At the end of January, Kofi Annan called off the strike” the United Nations declared in Iraq and agreed to return some staff to ascertain the views of a broad spectrum of Iraqi society in the search for alternatives that might be developed to move forward to the formation of a provisional government.”

Annan’s decision represents a new balance of power, one in which the United States admits that the United Nations has a genuinely vital” role — one the Bush administration hitherto denied, preferring to push through a new handpicked regime.

It is beginning to look as if there may be real elections in Iraq this year, induced ironically by the presidential election here — and the toughness of Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He has been insisting, after more practical than theological research, that elections are possible and that no American-nominated government would be legitimate without them. Al-Sistani has assembled experts who showed that, between ID cards and ration cards, the logistics of registration for voters were eminently practicable. At the very least, he argues, the new Iraqi government should escape from the stigma of quislinghood that being picked by the United States would confer.

Annan made his decision very slowly and deliberately. It followed pressure from the Iraqis across the political spectrum but resulted mostly from Washington’s change of heart. At the last minute, Coalition Administrator Paul Bremer — who originally stayed away from the January meeting between the United Nations and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) — turned up with a beguiling smile. U.N. participants remarked on how extraordinarily polite” the U.S. delegation was, which points to both the poor state of relations before and Washington’s desperate need for an exit strategy now.

The Americans told other diplomats that everything was now on the table — except the timetable itself. Bush has to declare victory on June 30 and pull out before Democrats start pushing on Iraq. At stake is the formation of the Transitional Legislative Council, to which the United States wants to hand over power (nominally, at least) this summer — and arguably the 2004 presidential election.

Bremer and the Pentagon decided that elections were not feasible,” so they opted for cascading caucuses” in each governorate. Since most Americans have difficulty understanding the Iowa caucuses, it is not surprising that this proposal went down like a pork steak with many Iraqis. The process is complex — and could, without too much cynicism, look like Americans designating their own successors.

Indeed, Bremer’s real problem was not the feasibility of elections but their desirability. The fear is that the wrong people could end up getting elected. To be fair, it is not just the expedient friends of democracy in the Pentagon who have such worries. Experience in other transition countries shows the genuine perils of letting the first rush of post-tyrant elections set arrangements and parties in stone. With the mosaic of religious, ethnic and tribal differences in Iraq, it will be a challenge to create a democratic state that respects minority rights.

However, British observers suggest that the majority Shia are not necessarily either as sectarian or as monolithic a bloc as many fear. British spokesmen have lent credence to al-Sistani’s case by admitting that elections are feasible. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. 

Iraqis seem to agree: According to one poll, 60 percent of Iraqis object to the U.S. occupation, and only 12 percent support it. So, any long term Iraqi government has to derive its authority from a more halal source than Bush and Bremer.

As al-Sistani suggests, that means the new government must have the blessing of the Iraqi people through elections or some other arrangement that is legitimized by the United Nations rather than by the American-led coalition. That explains the American and IGC pressure on Annan and the United Nations to bless the timetable and all its details.

The meeting at U.N. Headquarters revealed a convergence of views and interests. The Americans, despite their traditionally Panglossian announcements that they had dissuaded al-Sistani, are now so desperate to get out before the presidential election that they are prepared — indeed eager — to let in the United Nations and compromise with the Ayatollah.

The saner part of the coalition, represented by the British and the State Department, had worked hard to persuade Annan that if he follows his own and his staff’s inclinations to stay out until the official end of the occupation, it would be difficult to shoehorn the United Nations in after constitutional arrangements have solidified. With that call echoed by a broad section of Iraqis, from the IGC to the Ayatollah, there appeared to be a genuine window of opportunity for the United Nations and Annan has now decided to take it.
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, now available from Nation Books.
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