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Iraq: The Bungled Transition


Iyad Allawi is America’s man in Iraq. The interim prime minister, a Shiite, is tough, pro-American, but not visibly subservient. He is determined to take on the responsibility of fighting the insurgents, whether Sunni or Shiite, and prepared to be as ruthless as necessary to win. In short, Iyad Allawi is exactly the man President Bush thinks he needs as he faces an election likely to turn on events in Iraq.

Within days of his designation as prime minister, Allawi spoke openly of postponing Iraq’s elections and he gave himself the authority to impose martial law. In early August, he closed down al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau in retaliation for unfavorable coverage. Meanwhile, the Bush administration quietly let Iraq’s interim constitution—the so-called Transitional Administrative Law—expire stillborn, along with its much-ballyhooed protec-tions for human rights, women, and democracy.

The administration seems to be gambling that Allawi can mobilize sufficient Iraqi force against the insurgents so that coalition troops will stop dying at the current frightening rate. It is a measure of how far America’s once grand ambitions for Iraq have diminished that security has become more important than democracy for a mission intended not only to transform Iraq but with it the entire Middle East.

As I write, nearly two months after the handover, Allawi’s government faces a Shiite rebellion that extends from Basra to Baghdad, and has included extreme fighting in and around the Imam Ali shrine in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Thanks to an April agreement between the US military and Falluja’s Baathist leaders, the city has become a safe haven for terrorists. Other Sunni Arab cities—Mosul, Samarra, and Baquba—are full of armed insurgents while residents of Baghdad live in a capital beset by violent crime, terrorism, and the insurgency. All things considered, Allawi’s chances now appear to be highly uncertain.

Although we had known of each other for years, I first met Iyad Allawi only in April 2003, when he returned to Baghdad following thirty-five years in exile. As with other exile leaders, Allawi had helped himself to a building belonging to the previous regime and he was, when I called on him, receiving a steady stream of Arab tribal leaders, ex-army officers, Baghdad bureaucrats, political supporters, and fellow exiles. As fluent in English as in Arabic, Allawi has a direct, no-nonsense style that impresses Westerners. On the day I saw him, Allawi said all the right things in favor of democracy, human rights, and inclusion of national minorities.

Given Iraq’s demographics, the Bush administration and the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (who was nominally in charge of choosing the new government) decided that Iraq’s new prime minister should come from the Shiite majority. The Bush administration’s envoy Robert Blackwill vetoed two contenders from the Shiite religious parties, the finance minister Abel Abdel Mehdi, from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), and Ibrahim al-Jaffari, from the Dawa, or “Call,” Party. A third Shiite contender pulled out, leaving Allawi prime minister by default. Coming from a prominent Shiite family, Allawi met the Bush administration’s criterion of having a prime minister from Iraq’s most numerous religious group while avoiding the embarrassment of turning power over to a cleric. Under the interim constitution, most power is concentrated in the hands of the prime minister, rather than the figurehead president. Although the legal status of Allawi’s government is murky, since the interim constitution is not coming into effect, Allawi is acting as if he holds all power. To choose him over his rivals was also to make a clear statement about the kind of Iraq the US seeks.

Iyad Allawi began his career in the Baath Party, and when he was sent to study in England in 1971, he allegedly spied on his Iraqi fellow students. He has been accused, without proof so far as I know, of participating in human rights abuses, including killings, during his Baath Party years. He did, however, break with Saddam Hussein a long time ago, and in the 1970s he became sufficiently antagonistic toward the regime to be targeted for assassination. In 1978, an assailant wielding an axe entered his bedroom and nearly severed his leg. It took Allawi a year in the hospital to recover.

In 1991, Iyad Allawi founded the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which attracted former regime officials, ex-military officers, and former Baath Party members—in short, people very much like Allawi himself. During the next few years, the INA became the favorite of the CIA, while Ahmed Chalabi’s rival Iraqi National Congress (INC) gained support on Capitol Hill and, later, among the influential Pentagon neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Chalabi, along with his Kurdish and Shiite allies, promoted an Iraq that would be radically different from Saddam Hussein’s. The INA stood for an Iraq more or less like the one Saddam Hussein ran but without Saddam and without the worst abuses of the Baath Party.

In 1996, Allawi was intimately involved in one of the CIA’s several Iraq disasters, in this case a failed coup attempt by disillusioned army officers. The plot was compromised from the start, and Ahmed Chalabi, who had word of it from his own sources, so warned the CIA. Thirty Iraqi officers lost their lives. Predictably, the CIA was far angrier with Chalabi, who later criticized the agency publicly, than with Allawi.

Allawi’s Baathist background and CIA connections trouble Iraq’s democracy activists, who would have preferred someone not so tainted. His past also lends credibility to rumors and allegations, including a story in the Sydney Morning Herald that he personally executed six insurgents at a police station just before the transfer of sovereignty. This story, like most of the rumors, is uncorroborated and unfair. Iyad Allawi may have begun his career as a Baathist, but he also opposed the Saddam dictatorship for decades.

Allawi’s colleagues speak of him with evident affection, but even his allies point to his shortcomings. Several of the INA’s most respected leaders left the organization because they objected to Allawi’s authoritarian style, including an unwillingness to heed advice and inability to delegate authority. As an anti-Saddam activist, fellow exiles described Allawi as routinely embellishing his credentials. He would claim to have had meetings with world leaders that turned out to be fictional, and has said that he controlled operatives inside Iraq who, in fact, never existed.

Allawi’s tough-guy approach has won him admiration not just in official Washington but in Iraq as well. Many Iraqis are fed up with the insurgencies, and citizens of Baghdad appreciate his efforts to deal with that city’s kidnappings and armed robberies, which have gone out of control. (Allawi rounded up more than five hundred known criminals, a move that apparently never occurred to the American occupation authorities, since crime was not a problem in the highly fortified Green Zone.) Allawi’s comments about postponing elections (which he has not repeated in recent weeks) seem to have cost him little support in a country far more concerned with security than democracy.

The main problem for Allawi is that he lacks both the political constituency and the material resources to translate his tough line into effective action. According to an April public opinion survey commissioned by the US government, Allawi is one of Iraq’s least popular politicians, and is strongly opposed by some 61 percent of the population (a finding that seems to have carried no weight with the Bush administration, which both commissioned the poll and chose Allawi). The Iraqi forces available to implement his tough line are neither capable nor loyal, while the use of American troops further undermines his government’s narrow base of support.

On March 8 of this year, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the US-appointed administrator for Iraq, staged an elaborate signing ceremony for Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). In a gesture intended to recall the closing of the 1787 Philadelphia constitutional convention, Bremer laid out twenty-five pens so that each member of the Iraqi Governing Council could sign a document intended to serve as Iraq’s interim constitution. The Bush administration said the TAL would be a “road map” to the preparation of a permanent constitution. It hailed the TAL as unprecedented in the Middle East for its extensive human rights protections, its concern for the status of women, and its independent judiciary.

At the same time it was choosing Allawi as prime minister, the Bush administration effectively jettisoned the TAL. The administration had put itself in an impossible position with respect to its own creation. In 2003, at the request of the United States and Great Britain, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged that the US-led coalition was the occupying power in Iraq. As a general principle of international law, occupying powers are not allowed to make permanent, or irreversible, changes in an occupied country. Occupying powers cannot cede territory, sell assets, or make permanent law. Thus all law made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) expired when the occupation ended on June 28.

In order for the Transitional Administrative Law to be valid after the end of the occupation, it needed Security Council endorsement. In the 1990s, the Security Council granted other international administrations (Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor) lawmaking powers but the Bush administration, having alienated its allies, did not obtain this authority in the original 2003 UN Security Council resolution. In June 2004, when the Security Council considered the resolution restoring Iraqi sovereignty, the Bush administration decided not to seek an endorsement of the TAL (and other CPA-passed laws), ignoring pleas from pro-democracy Iraqis. It made that decision in deference to the Ayatollah Sistani, who does not want an elected, Shiite-dominated assembly to be in any way constrained by the American-created interim constitution. In particular, Sistani objected to provisions in the TAL that would make it difficult to create an Islamic state and would require a permanent constitution acceptable not just to the majority Shiites but also to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

To mollify Iraq’s Kurds, who had placed great stock in the TAL, Allawi agreed to “apply” it for the duration of his government. He has turned down Kurdish requests that it be enacted into law. And even if he did enact the TAL, he cannot commit the elected assembly that will follow his interim government to accepting it. For the Kurds, the most important provisions of the TAL were precisely those that ensure the continuation of a secular and democratic Kurdistan even after the national elections.

How did the Bush administration invest so much in the TAL and then find itself forced to abandon it? It appears that Bremer never realized that his decrees would not legally outlast the occupation. It was a rookie’s mistake caused, as with so many other CPA failures, by the lack of expertise on the part of his staff. The TAL was largely the responsibility of two of Bremer’s assistants (dubbed “the west wingers”), one an extremely capable but relatively junior Foreign Service officer and the other a young political appointee from the Pentagon’s stable of neoconservative nation-builders. Imbued with grand ideas such as remaking the Iraqi judiciary with a US-style Supreme Court, they apparently neglected to consult an international lawyer.

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