Deeper into the quagmire

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, May 27, 2003 at 3:01PM :

Deeper into the quagmire
22 - 28 May 2003
Al-Ahram Weekly Online

The Bush administration's pre-war promises of making Iraqis "free and masters of their own future" now seem easier said than done, writes Salah Hemeid

US and British officials told leaders of the Iraqi political groups who flooded back to Baghdad after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime that they had scraped plans to allow them to form a national assembly and a transitional government by the end of May. According to opposition leaders who attended the Friday meeting with Paul Bremer, the Pentagon- appointed civilian administrator of Iraq, coalition officials said they would remain in charge of occupied Iraq for an unspecified period.

Bremer, who was accompanied by John Sawers, a British diplomat representing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the leaders that the allies now preferred an "interim authority" in which Iraqis would only assist the coalition officers who would be in charge of the authority's departments or ministries.

The Iraqi groups may also help by creating a constitution and devising a plan for future democratic elections. "It's clear you cannot transfer all powers to some interim body, because it will not have the strength or resources to carry those responsibilities out," Sawers told reporters after the meeting. "There was agreement that we should aim to have a national conference as soon as we reasonably could do so," said Sawers, who was ambassador to Egypt before taking his new post.

The announcement came as a surprise to Iraqi opposition leaders whose groups have been working closely with the Bush administration in the pre-war planning aimed at getting rid of Saddam. On 28 April, the US and Britain sponsored a political gathering of about 300 Iraqis in Nasseriyah and supported their call for a national conference, to be held by the end of May with the purpose of selecting a transitional government. Zalmay Khalilzad, who has served as President George W Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, was a co- chairman of the April meeting, but did not return to Iraq for Friday's meeting.

Furthermore, Jay Garner, the retired US general who preceded Bremer, had announced on 5 May that the core of a new Iraqi government would emerge this month. At the time, Garner said he expected such a government to include figures like Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord, Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and another Sunni Muslim leader, possibly Adnan Pachachi, leader of the newly formed Iraqi Independent Democrats Group.

Following harsh criticism by Iraqi groups, US officials in Iraq tried to downplay the spat. "We want to have an Iraqi voice in everything we do here, but it would be wrong to do that precipitously," one official at Bremer's office told an international news agency. Bremer himself was evasive about the administration's plans saying only that there was no delay. In a released statement, he continued to use the term "interim authority" rather than "interim government" which is what the Iraqis want.

One Iraqi leader who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly from Baghdad accused the Americans of reneging on their promises. "The idea of a provisional government is not on their mind, they even hate to hear it," he said on condition of anonymity. He said Iraqi opposition leaders expressed strong disappointment over the reversal. He noted that the decision also appeared to reflect apprehensions in Washington and London that the former Iraqi opposition forces are still a disparate group.

Indeed, at a conference held in London last December, the US expressed its reservations about establishing a transitional government that might exclude internal alternatives to Saddam's fractious exiled opposition. A memo sent to the main groups taking part in the US-sponsored meeting clearly stated that the US "does not support the creation of a national assembly or a provisional government".

Iraqi groups might have assumed that the administration would change its mind in due course after the war. The administration's officials seem fearful that a divided or weak interim government in post-Saddam Iraq would not be able to withstand the conflicting ethnic and religious pressures that have tended to divide Iraq instead of cementing it together. They believe that mishandling the political reconstruction could be far more serious. In addition, the exclusion of any groups from power could trigger inter-communal conflict and even a violent uprising against the US-led government. "The last thing we want is to leave a bunch of self-appointed oligarchs in power," the US official told the international news agency.

The decision comes at a time when Washington and London have devised new steps to restore law and order in Iraq, cope with the devastation to civilian institutions, halt the looting and violent crime, and face increasing protests from Iraqis demanding coalition pull-out and internationally-supervised elections in Iraq.

The coalition move came after a shake-up of the American administration in Iraq just three weeks into its troubled existence. Barbara Bodine, who was put in charge of central Iraq, including Baghdad, was ordered home early and Garner was said to be cutting his mission short.

Widespread looting erupted across Iraq after the war, sparking gunfights with American forces and provoking criticism that the Pentagon had failed to plan sufficient security measures. More than one month after US-led forces took control of Iraq, rotting rubbish and power failures still plague Baghdad and Iraqis are complaining at the slow arrival of aid.

The appointment of Bremer, the State Department's former counter-terrorism chief, appeared designed to end a tug-of-war between the State Department and the Pentagon over post- conflict policy, which has appeared at times to be paralysing the decision-making process in Iraq. Even worse is that extensive divisions are now apparent between Iraq's political groups, mainly between returning Iraqi exiles, like Chalabi, who have been demanding prominent positions in any transitional government, and grassroots movements, many of them focussed on local Shi'ite leaders who are demanding an Islamic state.

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

-- Sadie
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