The New and Improved Iraq

Juan Cole

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 regime 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 regime.

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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