Iraq: The Bungled Transition

Iyad Allawi
Iyad Allawi; drawing by David Levine


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,…

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