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, 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.

The Bush administration’s recruitment of staff for the CPA is one of the great scandals of the American occupation, although it has so far received little attention from the press. Republican political connections counted for far more than professional competence, relevant international experience, or knowledge of Iraq. In May, The Washington Post ran an account of three young people recruited for service in the CPA by e-mail, without interviews, security clearances, or relevant experience. They ended up responsible for spending Iraq’s budget; because they knew little about the country or about financial procedures, they did so slowly. The failure to spend money was of course the source of enormous frustration to jobless Iraqis and undoubtedly produced recruits for the insurgency. According to the Post, the threesome, who included the daughter of a prominent conservative activist, had never applied to go to Iraq and could not figure out how they were selected. Finally they realized that the one thing they had in common was that they had applied for jobs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which had kept their resumes on file.

In some cases, the quest for political loyalists meant dismissing qualified professionals who had already been recruited. In the June 20 Chicago Tribune, the reporter Andy Zajac described how, in April of 2003, the Bush administration replaced the chief CPA health official, Dr. Frederick Burkle, a medical doctor with close working relationships with humanitarian organizations and long experience in conflict zones, with James Haveman, a political crony of Michigan’s Republican former governor. Unlike Dr. Burkle, who for months had been planning the restoration of Iraq’s health care system and who was ready to put a program in action as soon as Baghdad fell, Haveman did not arrive in Iraq until June 7, 2003. Although he had never worked in a post-conflict environment, Haveman strongly denied that he lacked international experience, apparently considering his travel to twenty-six foreign countries (as he told the Chicago Tribune) a relevant qualification.

The privatizing of Iraq’s economy was handled at first by Thomas Foley, a top Bush fund-raiser, and then by Michael Fleisher, brother of President Bush’s first press secretary. After explaining that he had got the job in Iraq through his brother Ari, he told the Chicago Tribune—without any apparent sense of irony—that the Americans were going to teach the Iraqis a new way of doing business. “The only paradigm they know is cronyism.”

Haveman, according to the Tribune, ignored Iraq’s private health care system (which meets half the country’s needs) and wasted huge amounts of money by refusing to collect data on the existing clinics. It is probably just as well that Iraq’s privatization program has not worked out, since the CPA could not, as the agent of an occupying power, lawfully sell any Iraqi assets, although it is unlikely that Fleisher or Foley knew this.

US spending in Iraq has been slow and misdirected. Politically connected corporations, such as Vice President Cheney’s Halliburton, received “no bid” contracts and have been accused of bilking the government with tens of millions in overcharges. But don’t expect politically embarrassing investigations. The CPA’s inspector general is Stuart Bowen Jr., a longtime Bush aide, who came to the position from the Washington lobbying firm of Patten Boggs. Among the contracts he is supposed to monitor is one for URS, a client whose $30 million contract he helped obtain. The US failure to meet the basic needs of ordinary people in postwar Iraq is the major reason so many Iraqis feel so bitterly angry with the occupation. The failure was not a matter of money. From the start the CPA had access to more than $1 billion in cash left behind by Saddam’s regime and $4 billion in UN oil-for-food funds earmarked for Kurdistan, but redirected (to the great anger of the Kurds) to a CPA-controlled budget. In October 2003, the US Congress appropriated $19 billion for Iraq reconstruction. The CPA also controlled revenues from Iraqi oil exports, which were, in spite of periodic sabotage, very substantial.

Eight months after receiving the congressional appropriation, however, the CPA had spent less than $500 million of it on reconstruction. The only part of Iraq not subject to the CPA’s financial control was Kurdistan, where the regional government received a cash allocation equal to just 6 percent of Iraq’s total budget (on a per capita basis it should have received 15 percent), but spent it so effectively that the local economy has enjoyed a boom that, in some areas, outstripped the local labor market. By contrast, unemployoment in Arab Iraq has hovered around 50 percent. The hiring of unqualified staff by the CPA, documented by the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, helps to explain why the CPA (known to my Iraqi friends as “Cannot Provide Anything”) accomplished so little.


Bush’s attempt to remake Iraq is the centerpiece of his foreign policy and, almost certainly, will be the defining event of his administration. The invasion and occupation were highly ideological decisions reflecting the philosophy of the President and his closest aides. What is astonishing is that the conduct of this venture was not left to the military and civilian professionals most qualified to make it work but rather to those most committed to a fuzzy vision of a transformed Iraq. In too many cases, these were people with no knowledge of Iraq, with no experience in dealing with post-conflict environments, with limited experience in making the US bureaucracy produce results, and with little or no expertise in the substantive matters (i.e., finance, trade) for which they were responsible. It is not surprising that so many gave up after relatively short periods in Iraq.

I participated in what became a major effort of the Clinton administration—bringing peace to Bosnia. While our efforts lacked the ideological fervor of Bush’s nation-building in Iraq, the outcome was important both for the Balkans and for President Clinton’s prospects for reelection in 1996. In finding people to fill key jobs in the international administration in Sarajevo as well as the US embassy there, the Bosnia peace negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, scoured the Foreign Service, the military, and the civilian bureaucracy for experts who knew the Balkans, who could speak the local language, and who could do the jobs for which they were recruited. The outcome in Bosnia—where no American has died in hostile action in the nine years since the Dayton Peace Accords went into effect—could not be more different from that in Iraq. Professionalism is at least part of the reason.

The most important judgment of the American occupation must be that of the peoples of Iraq. A US government poll conducted just before the handover showed that only 11 percent of Arab Iraqis had confidence in the CPA—down from 47 percent in November. It is not surprising that an occupation that began with flowers and cheers (I witnessed this in April 2003) ended two days ahead of schedule with the US administrator slipping out of Baghdad following a secret ceremony in the highly fortified Green Zone.

The process of choosing an interim government and the decision to abandon the TAL alienated the two Iraqi communities that are the best organized—the Kurds and the religious Shiites. These communities are key to the longterm stability of Iraq and include the country’s only genuinely popular politicians.

The Kurds were close American allies in the war and are the only Iraqi community to have given unreserved support to the occupation. Although they sacrificed significant powers to the central government in the drafting of the TAL, they were its strongest supporters. Ironically, the TAL’s demise now gives the Kurds the best oppor-tunity to continue their pursuit of independence.

In drafting the TAL, Ambassador Bremer insisted that ethnicity had no place. He resisted, unsuccessfully, Kurdish demands that their language be named as a national language and he argued against drawing regional boundaries on an ethnic basis. The Kurds were then shocked when Ambassador Robert Blackwill came to Kurdistan in late May with the message that a Kurd could be neither president nor prime minister of Iraq. The prime minister, Blackwill explained, had to be a Shiite Arab, while the president had to be a Sunni Arab. In a letter sent to President Bush on June 1, the two Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, complained bitterly about American hypocrisy, also noting that this was no way to thank an ally.

Blackwill clumsily attempted to mollify the Kurds by offering them two key ministries, foreign affairs and defense. In the end, however, he was unable to deliver on even this. The Kurds ended up with the ministry of foreign affairs and a specially created position of deputy prime minister, but without portfolio. While the Kurdish leaders acceded to an American request not to withdraw altogether from the national government, as they had threatened to do in their letter to Bush, both Barzani and Talabani refused to take positions in the new government themselves. Since there are only two top positions—prime minister and president—all three of Iraq’s major constituent groups could not be accommodated. But by telling the Kurds outright that they could not be considered as principal leaders, Blackwill left a legacy of bitterness.

For most Kurds, however, being frozen out of the national government was not an altogether bad thing. Public opinion in Kurdistan is overwhelmingly in favor of independence (in just one month earlier this year, some 1.7 million Kurds—perhaps 75 percent of Kurdistan’s adults—signed petitions demanding a vote on independence), and many Kurds believed that Barzani and Talabani were making too many concessions to Baghdad. Now that both leaders are back home, many Kurds expect them to concentrate on creating a self-governing Kurdistan.

In choosing Allawi, the Bush administration vetoed two moderate religious Shiite politicians with genuine popular support. In public opinion surveys, Ibrahim al-Jaffari, sidelined to one of two vice-presidential positions, was considered earlier this year to be Iraq’s most popular politician (he has since been supplanted in popularity by Moqtada al-Sadr, according to a US government–sponsored poll). Dawa’s Abel Abdel Mehdi, now the finance minister, also ranked high in the surveys.

Without a popular Shiite in a top position, Moqtada al-Sadr was more easily able to portray the transitional government as a continuation of the American occupation. In early August, five weeks after the handover, al-Sadr’s forces staged a new uprising, taking control of neighborhoods and police stations throughout southern Iraq, and giving the lie to administration claims that the young cleric is a fringe figure. Allawi responded just as al-Sadr had hoped, authorizing US Marines to attack the Shiite insurgents in Najaf’s holy center. The uneven battle left hundreds of insurgents dead, and produced thousands of new recruits to al-Sadr’s cause.

Belatedly recognizing the political disaster of having the Americans serve as his iron fist, Allawi announced that he would use Iraqi forces to secure Najaf. Unfortunately for him, the new Iraqi army—the most cherished project of the Pentagon’s neoconservatives—is not a serious force. Like everything else undertaken by the CPA, recruitment and training took place largely on paper. Most troubling of all, Iraq’s new security forces lack a commitment to the new Iraq. In April, the new army simply melted away rather than challenge the Falluja insurgency. This time, some army and police units have gone over to al-Sadr.

The 36th Iraqi National Guard battalion is the only unit in the Iraqi army that is a capable military force and willing to follow orders. It consists mostly of battle-hardened Kurdish peshmerga loaned to the new army at the request of the US in order to create the impression that there is a new army. The Americans used this unit to help fight Sunni insurgents in Falluja, and Allawi has now sent it to Najaf. Doing so will likely intensify Kurdish–Shiite tensions, just as the April deployment caused many Sunni Arabs to vow revenge against the Kurds.

In sending Iraqi forces to Najaf, Allawi overrode the objections of Ibrahim al-Jaffari, the Shiite vice-president. He also violated the provisions of the TAL, which require the unanimous consent of the president and the two vice-presidents before Iraqi forces are deployed. (The Kurds chose the other vice-president, but they now doubt he can protect their rights.) Allawi’s decision to override a provision of the TAL he had pledged to enforce made the Kurds even more determined to rely on their own forces and to block any entry into Kurdistan of the Iraqi Army, using force if necessary.

The Sunni Arab regions of Iraq are even more alienated from Allawi’s government than the Shiite cities. While visiting Iraq in early August, I spoke to the employer of a man, a Sunni, who had been taken hostage and recently released. Guarded by a force of fifty, the captive had been moved to six different villages in the northern part of the Sunni Triangle. At times, he was so close to the Americans that he could hear US troops talking. Yet not one person in any of these villages mentioned his presence to the Iraqi authorities or the American military forces.

Neither the US military nor Iraqi forces now enter Falluja, enabling extremists to train for, and plot, attacks elsewhere in Iraq with relative impunity. While there is no similar formal arrangement keeping US and Iraqi forces out of Samarra and Baquba, insurgents and terrorists have free rein in large parts of both cities.


In the May 13 issue of The New York Review, I argued that the breakup of Iraq seemed more likely than a successful transition to centralized democracy. I suggested that Iraq can be held together only as a loose federation consisting of Kurdistan, a Sunni entity in the center, and a Shiite entity in the south, with Baghdad as a jointly administered federal capital.

Subsequent events make such a breakup more likely than ever. The Kurds, whose attachment to Iraq was minimal to start with, have been further estranged by the bungled way they were excluded from the top positions in the transitional government and by the Bush administration’s decision to abandon the TAL. As support for extremists grows in Arab Iraq, the Kurds increasingly regard the rest of Iraq as an alien land. While just a few months ago Kurdish leaders concentrated on how to increase their influence in Baghdad, they now think as much about how to disengage from Iraq in the event of further deterioration, which most see as inevitable.

The main Shiite religious parties are biding their time until elections, in which they hope to dominate. With only marginal positions in the current administration, moderate Shiite religious parties risk being challenged by their more radical coreligionists, both in the street and at the ballot box. Without the TAL, there are no ground rules to govern the post-election phase; as a result, conflict is now all the more likely between Shiite clerics wanting to impose an Islamic state on all of Iraq and the Kurds seeking to preserve their secular self-governing entity in the north.

Moqtada al-Sadr has tried to appeal to the Sunni Arabs, and his slogans posted in Shiite areas say that Sunnis and Shiites are one. There is no comparable sense of solidarity from the Sunni Arabs, who fear being swallowed up by the Shiite majority. While militants in Falluja sent supplies to al-Sadr’s forces (the enemy of my enemy is my friend), Sunni fundamentalists (including a growing number of Wahhabis) consider the Shiites as heretical. The danger of sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is growing in Iraq, and a separate Sunni Arab region seems one way to minimize this danger. Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that the differences between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites is not nearly as deep as the ethnic gulf between Kurds and Arabs.

The opposition between Kurds and Arabs (both Shiite and Sunni) in Iraq is rooted not just in ethnicity and history. The two communities have radically different visions of what Iraq should be, and these have been exacerbated during the occupation’s final, messy months. Public opinion polls show that Kurds have their own distinctive views on such matters as democracy, the role of women, the place of religion in government, and on whether Iraq needs a new strongman. The Kurds are avowedly secular, wishing to keep religion and state separate; many are proud of the progress women have made in many spheres during the twelve years of Kurdish self-rule. Arab Iraqis, and in particular the Shiite majority, want Islam to have a significant role in the state. They believe Islam should be the principal source of public law, governing, for example, the personal status of women in matters such as divorce.

These differences are most pronounced in the attitudes toward Americans. The US government poll showed that 90 percent of Arab Iraqis see the US as occupiers (and just 2 percent as liberators) while other surveys showed more than 80 percent of the people in Kurdistan see the US as liberators. But apart from these attitudes toward the US, it is hard to see how a country can be held together when its major peoples hold such fundamentally different views of the nature of the state.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandals, combined with the success of the Falluja and al-Sadr insurgencies, have, if anything, heightened these ideological distinctions. Arabs were appalled by the abuses of naked Iraqi prisoners; and even those opposed to the insurgencies welcomed the exposure of wrongdoing by an unpopular occupying power. The Kurdish press and television played down the scandals of Abu Ghraib. (Young people with whom I spoke in Kurdistan as the scandal broke were not so much upset by the abuse of the prisoners—they probably deserved the treatment they got, some said—as they were bewildered by an American military administration in which female soldiers could be photographed sexually abusing naked men.) And the Kurds, who see their fate as linked to that of the United States, wish the US could do better in the fight against the twin insurgencies.

A loose federation would allow each Iraqi federal unit to have the political system its people choose. Kurdistan could continue to be secular and democratic, while the Shiites could have an Islamic state, but only in the south. Such a federation is already in the making. As has been the case since the early 1990s, Kurdistan continues to act as a virtually independent country, with its own government, military, and flag. Under the TAL, Kurdistan was supposed to transfer some powers to the central government. With the TAL’s demise, this has not happened. No Iraqi taxes apply in Kurdistan, Iraqi flags do not fly anywhere in Kurdistan’s capital, and Kurdistan continues to control its international borders. Elections in Kurdistan will cer-tainly harden the nationalist positions of most Kurds, making concessions to the central government even less likely. And some Kurdish leaders have warned the Americans that if the post-election central government insists on more power than it would have had under the TAL, Kurdistan will secede.

At the end of July, Iraq’s three southern administrative districts, or governorates, proposed to form their own Shiite majority region, and specifically asked for the same powers as the Kurdistan region. If this suggests that thinking among Shiites may evolve away from using their majority to impose their rule on all of Iraq, it could be a very hopeful development.

As late as April 23, Paul Bremer could still talk about “the path to a new Iraq…where the majority is not Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurd or Turkoman, but Iraqi.” By the June handover, the Bush administration had largely given up on such fantasies of nation-building in Iraq. Abandoning the idea of a single national military, the CPA agreed to permit Kurdistan to retain a cohesive and capable Kurdish combat force, asking only that the peshmerga (the traditional name for the Kurdish guerrillas) be renamed as “mountain rangers.” The Kurds, however, freely translate these English words as “peshmerga.” While insisting that the militias of non-Kurdish parties be disbanded (or merged into a national army), Americans privately acknowledge that this will not happen, and is not necessarily desirable.

“Realism” has replaced democracy and nation-building as the central concern of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. Unfortunately, it is having trouble defining and carrying out a realistic policy. As with its previous triumphalist policy, the problems with the new, realistic, policy come from ignorance of Iraq’s history and society. Even if Iyad Allawi wanted to be a gentler version of Saddam Hussein, he could not succeed. Before the American invasion, the institutions that held Saddam in power—the army, the Republican Guards, the security services—had already become riddled with internal problems. The Americans shat-tered them, and they cannot now be reconstituted.

A truly realistic policy would acknowledge what actually exists in Iraq and work with that reality. Kurdistan operates as a virtually independent state where the central government has no presence. Various Shiite parties and religious institutions are the popularly accepted authority in the south, providing the local administration and having co-opted Baghdad’s nominal representatives. Neither the United States nor the Allawi government has the power to change this reality, nor has either made any attempt to do so. Institutionalizing this “ground reality” in a loose federation can help reduce the risk of civil war. Further, a recognized and empowered Shiite entity has a much better prospect of handling its own troublemakers, such as al-Sadr, than an alien central government.

A Shiite–Kurdish coalition at the center of a federated Iraq would represent some 80 percent of Iraq’s people. It would resolve the issue of Kurdish separatism and help contain Shiite radicalism, thus allowing the central government to concentrate on the Sunni Arab insurgency and the deterioration of law and order in the capital. If this conception had been understood earlier, America’s problems in Iraq could have been narrowed to the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad.

Such a realistic policy would not abandon the prospect of democracy. On the contrary, it is based on the recognition that Iraq’s diverse peoples want very different things, and it seeks to accommodate them by allowing each to determine its own path by means of a democratic process. People in control of their own destiny are more likely to cooperate effectively against the common enemies of terrorism and extremism than those preoccupied with protecting their national identity.

The Bush administration is betting that Allawi’s assertive talk can be translated into effective action against insurgents and terrorists. But for all his good intentions and tough-minded approach, the prime minister suffers from the same lack of legitimacy that plagued the CPA. He may be more competent than the American occupiers (he could hardly do worse), but he is still seen as their choice.

The United States faces a near-impossible dilemma in Iraq. If it withdraws prematurely, it risks leaving behind a weak government unable to cope with the chaos that is the breeding ground of terrorism. By staying in Iraq, the United States undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government it wants to support, while US military action produces more recruits for its enemies. The advantage of a strategy aimed at loose federation is that it can create powerful regions and thereby a possible escape from our dilemma. The current strategy, if it can be called that, offers no way out.

—August 25, 2004

This Issue

September 23, 2004