Decision in Iraq

22 January 2004

Decision Time in Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

Suddenly the crisis has arrived in Iraq. The mass demonstrations of Shia Arabs that have rolled through Baghdad and other Iraqi cities since 18 January will continue either until the Bush administration agrees to free elections, or until the shooting starts in earnest. If Mr Bush gives in, the United States will lose almost all influence over events in Iraq by July, which is hardly what the White House planners had in mind. If he toughs it out, the war in Iraq may soon get a lot bigger.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 73-year-old cleric who leads Iraq’s Shia majority, won the first round against the US occupiers last June, when he defeated a plan to have the former exiles, carpetbaggers and political placemen of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council write the country’s new constitution. Even then, before fighters from the Sunni minority started killing large numbers of American troops, US proconsul Paul Bremer realised that the occupation forces could not afford to end up in a confrontation with the majority population as well.

At that point, however, the US authorities were not planning to hand over to an elected Iraqi government for at least two years, and Sistani was not looking for a fight. He even let his followers cooperate with the US occupation regime, though he insisted that after every contact with an American official they should ask: “And when are you Americans going to leave?” He was waiting to see whether the Bush administration really meant to give Iraq democracy (which would give power to the Shia majority for the first time ever). Now he has concluded that it does not, so he has acted.

The trigger for the current confrontation was Bremer’s plan for a high-speed handover to something that could be portrayed as a legitimate Iraqi government, unveiled last November as US combat deaths in Iraq since the war’s end neared the two hundred mark. With the US presidential election only a year away, that could not be allowed to continue. What Washington needed was an Iraqi government with more credibility than the puppet Governing Council that would take over the front-line fight against the Sunni resistance, thereby cutting US losses — but would still do the US bidding.

So Bremer devised a plan that would produce a ‘democratic’ government without letting the process get out of US control. The Iraqi Governing Council would appoint a committee of fifteen Iraqis in each of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. These committees would choose caucuses of local notables who would in turn select representatives to a new national parliament in May. Then this hand-picked parliament would choose a government (no prize for guessing how many members of the old Governing Council it includes), and the US would hand over formal authority on 30 June.

Bremer defended his cynical plan with the claim that there was no time for a real election: “At present there’s no electoral commission, there’s no electoral law, there are no political party laws, there’s no census, there’s no voter registration, there are no electoral constituencies.” But the old electoral laws and constituencies of pre-Saddam Iraq would serve for now, if the will was there, and the ration cards that were issued to every Iraqi under the UN oil-for-food programme, plus indelible ink on the hands of those who voted, would solve most of the voter registration problem.

Even if Bremer’s argument that a democratic election cannot be organised by June were true, why is that the deadline? Maybe the real answer is just Mr Bush’s own electoral timetable, but Sistani has concluded that the US is avoiding an election because it fears that the ‘wrong’ people would win: Sunni Arabs who are former Baathists, Kurds bent on independence, and above all Shia Arabs who follow Sistani. So in mid-January he flatly rejected Bremer’s plan — “The mechanism to create an interim government does not at all represent the Iraqi people in a just way. The best mechanism is to have proper elections” — and the mass demonstrations began.

It is a huge dilemma for the occupation forces. If they stick to Bremer’s plan, they are in a head-on confrontation with a majority of Iraq’s population. If they cannot suppress a resistance movement drawn from a minority of the Sunni Arab population (who only account for 20 percent of Iraqis), how can they win a conflict with the Shia who account for over 60 percent of the population? And how long will that conflict take to turn violent?

Give in to Sistani’s demands, however, and the game is over. A democratically elected, Shia-dominated government would demand control over US troops in Iraq in the short run, and send them home in the long run. It would cancel the deals that reward Bush administration cronies with lucrative contracts and oilfield concessions, and reverse the privatisation of the Iraqi economy. It would certainly would not make peace with Israel. US troops would still be vulnerable to attacks by both Baathists and fundamentalists, and could end up trapped in an Iraqi civil war.

Paul Bremer has just been to Washington to confer with Mr. Bush, and then to New York to beg United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to talk Sistani out of his demands. Now the US president has summoned Iraqi Governing Council president Adnan Pachachi and Sistani’s adviser Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to Washington for talks. Within weeks he will have to choose between Bremer’s plan and free elections in Iraq — and then things will get really interesting.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“At that point…acted”; and “Bremer…problem”)