Entering the Interim

by , June 05, 2004

So now there’s an interim government in Iraq, and at least there’s the appearance that the Iraqis exercised a bit of independence from the United States in the choice of a prime minister (Iyad Allawi, a Shia with longstanding military and CIA connections, head of the Iraqi National Accord, with a power base among former Ba’athists and Iraqi military men) and president (Ghasi Mashal Ajil al-Yawar (a Sunni from the influential Shammar tribe. Or maybe that show of independence was an elaborate charade, made to create the impression of being ready to give the U.S. the back of the hand to increase credibility among Iraqis.

In what might be called an exit interview, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, according to a Knight-Ridder news story by Tom Lasseter, reminded reporters that “Bremer [U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq] is the dictator of Iraq. He has the money. He has the signature.” Later in the interview, he added, “I will not say who was my first choice, who was not my first choice … I will remind you that the Americans are governing this country.”

An acquaintance of Brahimi, Sadoun al Dulame, head of a Baghdad research and polling center, said Brahimi was discouraged when he talked to him last week. “He was very disappointed, very frustrated, al Dulame told Knight-Ridder. “I asked him why he didn’t say that publicly (and) he said, ‘I am the UN envoy to Iraq, how can I admit to failure?'”

So the charade – or Arabesque, perhaps – goes on.

Do Brahimi’s remarks suggest that the U.S. got what it wanted and was clever enough to make it look as if it had been shunned or countermanded? He may not tell us more until he writes his memoirs, if he ever does. But at the least, it’s hard to believe that Paul Bremer did not have an effective veto. Perhaps Allawi and al-Yawar were not his first choices, but I can’t imagine they would be there if he had serious objections or even reservations about them. It will be interesting to watch just how independent they turn out to be. My guess is somewhat, but with a sense of not going too far off the reservation.

Certainly Allawi has longstanding U.S. and UK connections. He was supposedly a member of Saddam Hussein’s security forces when he was a student at medical school in Baghdad in the 1960s. In the 1970s, having obtained an M.S. and an M.D. from London University, he hooked up with both the CIA and the British MI6. His Iraqi National Accord was made up mostly of disillusioned former Ba’ath Party members and military people. Although a Shia, he is said to be a secularist and supposedly has no particular relationship with leading Shia clerics or with Iran. He not only sounds like somebody the U.S. could get along with, he’s somebody the U.S. has gotten along with and supported in the past. And he immediately announced that he wanted the U.S. – er, excuse me, multinational coalition of the willing – military to stay and assure security, at least for the time being. As if the U.S.forces have been successful at providing security.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

I talked with Marina Ottaway, a senior associate in the Democracy and the Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She said that at this point the interim government presents more questions than answers to those who haven’t been privy to all the maneuvering and back-room deals that have gone into this selection.

The most important question, still unanswered as of this writing, is what kind of response this interim government has received from actual Iraqis in Iraq. Ms. Ottaway thought it curious that there had not been a reasonably prompt statement from Ayatollah Sistani, by most accounts the most influential (and at least up to now fairly cooperative – aside from the matter of getting tens of thousands of people on the streets to demand more democracy and causing the U.S. to alter course a bit) Shia cleric in Iraq. I found one news story that said Sistani approved, and he was certainly kept informed, but he had not issued a formal statement as of Wednesday.

Former Iraqi Governing Council member Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd, expressed discontent with both Bremer and Brahimi. In an interview on al-Jazeera television, he said, of Bremer: “His attitude was as if he wanted to dominate the matter and never give the Iraqis a chance to express their opinion. I also regret the attitude of the UN envoy to Iraq. He is also to some extent under their [the Americans’] control … This way is not democratic and would not conform to any democratic fashion or real negotiations.”

What does the “renegade” al-Sadr think of all this? Is there a chance he will suspend violence, militia activity or large-scale demonstrations for a while to give the interim government a chance to work and to prove it’s not a U.S. puppet? He has little incentive to act that way. If the reports are reasonably correct – and it’s wise to be skeptical and wait for more complete stories to emerge – his armed rebellion has withered somewhat due to lack of support from other Shia clerics. If there are democratic elections, he is likely to be marginalized. Unless things change, of course – which no doubt they will, though in which directions I’m reluctant to predict.

We also have yet to hear from the real powers among the Kurds, Massoud Barzani the at one time leftist-oriented Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) or the mostly-rival-sometime-de-facto-allied Jalal Talabani of the tribally-oriented Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Kurds had wanted something more than a symbolic office. They got the second vice-presidency, filled by Rowsch Shaways, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly and a member of the KDP.

WHAT MANNER OF SOVEREIGNTY

The second key question is how much real sovereignty the new interim government will have. President Bush continues to insist that the entity will have “full sovereignty,” but he is not exactly noted for his grasp of arcane political-science concepts. A governing entity in a country where a foreign power has 138,000 troops, with “the authority to take all necessary measures to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq, including by preventing and deterring terrorism” – that’s in the draft UN resolution – whose status is subject to review only by the UN Security Council (at least in theory) or by some successor government-like entity is not exactly a full sovereign.

Marina Ottaway also noted that the new government will have something less than full control over Iraq’s most notable resource, oil. That’s still governed (at least in the U.S.-drafted UN resolution) by UN Resolution 1483, which set up an International Advisory and Monitoring Board, with folks from the World Bank, the IMF, the UN and the Arab Development Bank supervising it. The goal is to ensure “transparency,” of course, but some Iraqi leaders view it as an imposition on their autonomy, which of course it is. Even if it’s a strictly benign and neutral body (sure), dealing with it is bound to be something of a bureaucratic mess.

More questions: Will laws enacted by the Iraqi Governing Council – which provided the most hopeful note by dissolving itself, when a case could have been made that it should stay in existence until June 30 when the new-new interim was scheduled to become “fully sovereign” – continue in force after June 30. Bush administration officials say so but not everybody agrees. A fully sovereign new government should have the power to make new laws or repeal old ones. And some experts say no law enacted under military occupation has standing when the terms of the occupation change. But the Kurds want the old laws, which did offer paper protections to them, to stay in force.

Finally, will the new interim government really call a national conference to develop a constitution and all that? That’s on the U.S. timetable, but a fully sovereign government, even of the interim variety, might be in a position to take a different course.

Read more by Alan Bock