The New and Improved Iraq

Juan ColeJune 22, 2004

Soldiers from the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps stand at attention during a June 1st transfer of authority ceremony.

The so-called tran­si­tion to sov­er­eign­ty for Iraq set for June 30 has been trum­pet­ed as a turn­ing point by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion. It is hard to see, how­ev­er, what exact­ly it changes. A sym­bol­ic act like a turnover of sov­er­eign­ty can­not sup­ply secu­ri­ty, which is like­ly to dete­ri­o­rate fur­ther as insur­gents attempt to desta­bi­lize the new, weak gov­ern­ment. The care­tak­er gov­ern­ment, appoint­ed by out­siders, does not rep­re­sent the will of the Iraqi peo­ple. Some 138,000 U.S. troops remain in the coun­try and the U.S. embassy in Bagh­dad will be the largest in the world, both of which bode ill for any exer­cise of gen­uine sov­er­eign­ty by Prime Min­is­ter Iyad Allawi.

The care­tak­er gov­ern­ment faces five key issues, any one of which could be desta­bi­liz­ing. It must jump­start the cre­ation of an Iraqi army that could hope to restore secu­ri­ty. It must find a way to hold free and fair elec­tions by next Jan­u­ary, a dif­fi­cult trick to pull off giv­en the dai­ly toll of bomb­ings and assas­si­na­tions. It must get hos­pi­tals, water treat­ment plants and oth­er essen­tial ser­vices back to accept­able lev­els. It must keep the country’s var­i­ous fac­tions from fight­ing one anoth­er or from pulling away in a sep­a­ratist dri­ve. And it must nego­ti­ate between reli­gious and sec­u­lar­ist polit­i­cal forces.

The issue of sep­a­ratism already has arisen. The U.N. res­o­lu­tion that cre­at­ed the new gov­ern­ment neglect­ed to men­tion the Tran­si­tion­al Admin­is­tra­tive Law (TAL) or tem­po­rary con­sti­tu­tion passed by the Inter­im Gov­ern­ing Coun­cil under Amer­i­can aus­pices in Feb­ru­ary. Grand Aya­tol­lah Ali Sis­tani, the spir­i­tu­al leader of most of Iraq’s major­i­ty Shi­ite pop­u­la­tion, had warned U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Kofi Annan against endors­ing that doc­u­ment. The TAL calls for a sec­u­lar legal code and gives the minor­i­ty Kurds a veto over the per­ma­nent con­sti­tu­tion, to be ham­mered out by an elect­ed par­lia­ment in spring of 2005. Sis­tani objects to the Kurds’ veto. The major Kur­dish lead­ers, for their part, wor­ry that the Unit­ed Nations and the Bush admin­is­tra­tion might go back on the promis­es made to the Kurds of semi-auton­o­my and spe­cial minor­i­ty rights. Some angri­ly threat­ened to secede from Iraq if that should hap­pen. The cre­ation of the care­tak­er gov­ern­ment, which was sup­posed to help resolve prob­lems of insta­bil­i­ty, instead has pro­voked a major cri­sis with one major Iraqi eth­nic group.

Ear­ly last Jan­u­ary a mem­ber of the U.S.-appointed Inter­im Gov­ern­ing Coun­cil (IGC) in Iraq, Mah­moud Osman, gave a reveal­ing inter­view to Al-Hay­at of Lon­don. He said that offi­cials of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion in Iraq had been extreme­ly offend­ed” when the IGC called for U.N. involve­ment in the tran­si­tion to Iraqi sov­er­eign­ty. The admin­is­tra­tion, he explained, did not want any inter­na­tion­al actor to par­tic­i­pate in this process; rather it want­ed to reap the ben­e­fits in order to increase Pres­i­dent Bush’s polit­i­cal stock in the months lead­ing up to the Novem­ber elec­tion. He added: The fun­da­men­tal issue for Iraqis is the return of sov­er­eign­ty. The Amer­i­cans are in a hur­ry for it, as well, though for their own inter­ests. The impor­tant thing for the Amer­i­cans is to ensure the reelec­tion of George Bush. The achieve­ment of a spe­cif­ic accom­plish­ment in Iraq, such as the trans­fer of pow­er, increas­es, in the eyes of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, the chances that Bush will be reelected.”

In the end, Sis­tani and oth­er Iraqi politi­cians forced Bush to involve the Unit­ed Nations and to seek a Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion. He also was forced to give away far more actu­al sov­er­eign­ty to the care­tak­er gov­ern­ment than he would have liked in order to get the U.N. res­o­lu­tion he had not orig­i­nal­ly want­ed. In par­tic­u­lar, the U.S. mil­i­tary must now con­sult with the Iraqi gov­ern­ment before under­tak­ing major mil­i­tary actions.

But is the turnover real­ly much of an accom­plish­ment? All that has hap­pened is that the Bush admin­is­tra­tion worked with spe­cial U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahi­mi to appoint the four top offi­cers of state and the cab­i­net min­is­ters. This group of appointees will then be declared the sov­er­eign gov­ern­ment of Iraq.

Iraq already had the U.S.-appointed IGC, con­sist­ing of 25 Iraqi politi­cians, many of them long­time expa­tri­ates asso­ci­at­ed with sig­nif­i­cant Iraq par­ties or eth­nic con­stituen­cies. They had in turn already appoint­ed cab­i­net min­is­ters. Why is a sec­ond appoint­ed gov­ern­ment bet­ter? More­over, the over­lap between the two is sub­stan­tial. Prime Min­is­ter Iyad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqi Nation­al Accord, a group of ex-Baath offi­cers and offi­cials who had fall­en out with Sad­dam, was an influ­en­tial mem­ber of the IGC. Allawi’s group engaged in ter­ror­ist actions against the Sad­dam régime with back­ing from the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency. Con­se­quent­ly, his emer­gence as prime min­is­ter is some­thing of an embar­rass­ment to both coun­tries. And it was Allawi’s Iraqi Nation­al Accord that also pro­vid­ed false intel­li­gence to the Bush admin­is­tra­tion and the Blair gov­ern­ment about the dan­gers of Saddam’s régime.

Like Allawi, Pres­i­dent Ghazi al-Yawar, a West­ern-edu­cat­ed engi­neer rep­re­sent­ing the pow­er­ful large­ly Sun­ni Shamar tribe in Iraq’s north, already was on the IGC. The two vice pres­i­dents and sev­er­al cab­i­net mem­bers are either for­mer IGC mem­bers or rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the polit­i­cal par­ty that held that seat. In effect, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion is play­ing a shell game to cre­ate the illu­sion of progress. The IGC is sim­ply being renamed. The only sig­nif­i­cant change is that pre­vi­ous Depart­ment of Defense and neo­con­ser­v­a­tive favorite Ahmad Cha­l­abi has been dis­graced as an Iran­ian intel­li­gence asset, and he and his rel­a­tives and cronies have lost their positions.

Why is the con­tin­u­a­tion of the IGC in pow­er under a new rubric a bad thing? First, its mem­bers are not elect­ed by the Iraqi pub­lic. Sec­ond, they are not ful­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the major polit­i­cal forces on the ground in Iraq. Paul Bre­mer, act­ing on instruc­tions from the Defense Depart­ment neo­cons, com­plete­ly exclud­ed for­mer Baath par­ty mem­bers from soci­ety, fir­ing them from their jobs and pro­hibit­ing them from play­ing any polit­i­cal role. He dis­solved the Iraqi army and sent 400,000 armed troops home with­out a job. The Sun­ni Arabs, who had been the WASPs of Iraq, grew alarmed that their pow­er and assets would be expro­pri­at­ed by Amer­i­can-installed Shi­ite aya­tol­lahs and Kur­dish war­lords. Bre­mer thus helped deep­en and pro­long the insur­gency mount­ed by Sun­ni guer­ril­las in the cen­ter-north of the coun­try. Only recent­ly has Bre­mer begun revers­ing the extreme poli­cies that had alien­at­ed so many Sunnis.

The Amer­i­cans also exclud­ed from the IGC and the care­tak­er gov­ern­ment the Shi­ite Sadrist move­ment. This group was found­ed in the 90s by Aya­tol­lah Muham­mad Sadiq al-Sadr, and they mil­i­tant­ly opposed Sad­dam. The Sadrists favor a strict Shi­ite theoc­ra­cy and cler­i­cal rule, resem­bling fol­low­ers of Khome­i­ni in Iran. They are now split, but the two major lead­ers of the move­ment are Muq­ta­da al-Sadr and Muham­mad Yaqubi. Sadrists include mil­lions of poor slum dwellers in East Bagh­dad and oth­er Shi­ite cities of the south. In ear­ly April, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion decid­ed to try to arrest Muq­ta­da al-Sadr on some pre­text, even though his forces had not attacked U.S. troops. This move pro­voked a Sadrist upris­ing through­out the Shi­ite south. Although the Unit­ed States was able grad­u­al­ly to roll back the Sadrist Army of the Mah­di mili­ti­a­men, it could not destroy the move­ment (See Por­trait of a Rebel­lion,” June 21.).

On June 8, Bre­mer announced that al-Sadr and his major lieu­tenants would be exclud­ed from run­ning for office for three years because of their asso­ci­a­tion with an ille­gal mili­tia. Prime Min­is­ter Iyad Allawi took a more con­cil­ia­to­ry tone, call­ing al-Sadr to a dia­logue of civ­i­liza­tions,” a phrase pop­u­lar­ized by Iran’s reformist pres­i­dent, Muham­mad Khata­mi. Al-Sadr in return announced that he would accept the legit­i­ma­cy of the care­tak­er gov­ern­ment if it set a strict timetable for the with­draw­al of U.S. troops from Iraq and if it presided over free and fair elec­tions with­in sev­en months, as promised. He also announced that the Sadrists would form a polit­i­cal par­ty to con­test those elec­tions, although Muq­ta­da him­self would not run for office.

The exclu­sion­ary poli­cies of the Amer­i­cans are like­ly to fade away when there are elec­tions, unless they and Allawi con­tin­ue to attempt to shape the polit­i­cal scene by try­ing to dis­qual­i­fy can­di­dates on var­i­ous pre­texts. Should they do so, they will like­ly pro­long the var­i­ous insur­gen­cies in the coun­try. The price of the kind of polit­i­cal inclu­sion that might bring sta­bil­i­ty, how­ev­er, may well be a com­plete Amer­i­can depar­ture from Iraq.

Juan Cole (www​.juan​cole​.com) is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Mid­dle East­ern and South Asian His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and author, most recent­ly, of Sacred Space and Holy War.
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