US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Iraq: Issues on the horizon

in Program

This analysis appeared in the October 23, 2003 edition of Bitterlemons International.

With the unexpected unanimous passage of a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, the international community is closer to consensus about how to proceed in assisting Iraq to build a new political system. There is nominal agreement that Iraqis should move quickly to establish a process that will lead to a new constitution and elections in a timeframe that is neither as fast as some Iraqis would want nor as slow as some had feared. The new UN resolution should also, in theory, generate more financial and security partners for the US/UK forces in Iraq, although it may turn out that Security Council members were more motivated to help Iraq clarify the issues of governance than to help Washington manage the daunting burdens of its ambitious Iraq policy.

The focus should now move to Iraq, where various Iraqi actors are showing higher levels of energy and optimism than was the case in the first months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Some of the activity in Baghdad and other major cities is violent, but it is important to keep separate the attacks on American (and other foreign) forces in the country, from the now emerging new politics of Iraq. Violence against American troops may be the critical consideration for Washington policymakers who need to manage the political and budgetary consequences, but the security environment, dangerous as it may be, does not explain the totality of what is going on in Iraq today. After the initial trauma of the war and the fall of Saddam Hussein, moderate Iraqis of many political persuasions are emerging from the shadows and gaining momentum and confidence in building a new Iraq.

At least three issues are worthy of attention: the debate over sovereignty and how to launch the political process, the credibility of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council, and the possible tradeoffs between federalism and Shia interests.

Perhaps the most useful outcome of the new Security Council resolution is to put to bed the debate over sovereignty. There was much rhetoric through the summer about the status of Iraqi sovereignty. Some international players, governments and non-government organizations fueled the debate by insisting that a sovereign Iraqi authority, not the occupation forces, was needed to legitimize any foreign humanitarian or development activities in the country. Without venturing into all the legal and academic perspectives, the question of sovereignty was a political problem for the governing council, and was adding to resentment about the pace of political transition.

The new UN resolution may help resolve the question, by giving greater recognition to the council and its responsibility to provide the Security Council with its timetable for a constitution and elections, thus making clear that Iraqis, not Americans, will report to the Council on the political future of Iraq. Some have also argued that sovereignty was never in dispute since the legal status of the Iraqi state remained intact, and recent acceptance of Iraqi officials at the Arab League and other international organizations has seemed to resolve the debate, or to take the sting out of the issue.

Less clear is whether the Governing Council and its membership have gained in credibility and stature. The two dozen members are learning to work together, and have established transparent procedures, including rotating leadership, that have reassured Iraqis and many in the international community. But some perceive its representative nature–the careful way the United States worked to make it symbolically inclusive of all major Iraqi groups–as a problem for Iraq’s political future. Some Iraqis and Arab elites outside Iraq have reacted badly to the American creation of the council, arguing that it looks like Lebanon, or sends the signal that America cares more about the appearance of fairness and diversity than about the quality of leadership. According to this argument, Iraqis would have preferred to see people chosen on their individual merits and professional qualifications, rather than identified as representing an ethnic or sectarian grouping.

There is also grumbling from various quarters about the unsavory pasts and practices of some members. This criticism applies not only to the returned exiles, but to leaders who remained during the Saddam years. Some may complain out of jealousy or disgruntlement, but the United States needs to be sensitive to the fact that American values of inclusiveness and diversity are not the only or the most important values that Iraqis will want to see protected in their new political culture.

Iraqis have many critical choices to make in the months ahead. As they begin a long national conversation about the core principles of a new constitution, many believe and hope that Iraqis will find federalism a useful mechanism to manage regional differences, to protect minorities, and to preserve national unity. Federalism is probably a key requirement for the Kurds, even if the federal state in which most Kurds would live would not be called Kurdistan, and would include important numbers of Arabs and Turcomen. But an equally powerful impulse is to ensure Shia empowerment and to uphold basic democratic principles of equality. It seems that the Shia, currently distracted by their own internal political disputes and leadership struggles, may be less persuaded that federalism is a virtue, when their numbers provide them such comfort and strength.

The months ahead will provide much excitement and stress for fledgling Iraqi democrats. Learning to listen and respect one another and to come to closure on political choices will be hard. The hardest task of all is to balance the demands of the Shia majority for empowerment and respect, with the need to address past and potential grievances of Kurds and Sunnis. The interests of all three key groups need to be addressed; a Shia drift away from support for federalism would be a warning sign of trouble ahead.

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