Larry Diamond. Foreign Affairs. Volume 83, Issue 5. September/October 2004.
Blundering In Baghdad
With the transfer of power to a new interim Iraqi government on June 28, the political phase of U.S. occupation came to an abrupt end. The transfer marked an urgently needed, and in some ways hopeful, new departure for Iraq. But it did not erase, or even much ease at first, the most pressing problems confronting that beleaguered country: endemic violence, a shattered state, a nonfunctioning economy, and a decimated society. Some of these problems may have been inevitable consequences of the war to topple Saddam Hussein. But Iraq today falls far short of what the Bush administration promised. As a result of a long chain of U.S. miscalculations, the coalition occupation has left Iraq in far worse shape than it need have and has diminished the long-term prospects of democracy there. Iraqis, Americans, and other foreigners continue to be killed. What went wrong?
Many of the original miscalculations made by the Bush administration are well known. But the early blunders have had diffuse, profound, and lasting consequences-some of which are only now becoming clear. The first and foremost of these errors concerned security: the Bush administration was never willing to commit anything like the forces necessary to ensure order in postwar Iraq. From the beginning, military experts warned Washington that the task would require, as Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki told Congress in February 2003, “hundreds of thousands” of troops. For the United States to deploy forces in Iraq at the same ratio to population as NATO had in Bosnia would have required half a million troops. Yet the coalition force level never reached even a third of that figure. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his senior civilian deputies rejected every call for a much larger commitment and made it very clear, despite their disingenuous promises to give the military “everything” it asked for, that such requests would not be welcome. No officer missed the lesson of General Shinseki, whom the Pentagon rewarded for his public candor by announcing his replacement a year early, making him a lame-duck leader long before his term expired. Officers and soldiers in Iraq were forced to keep their complaints about insufficient manpower and equipment private, even as top political officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) insisted publicly that greater military action was necessary to secure the country.
In truth, around 300,000 troops might have been enough to make Iraq largely secure after the war. But doing so would also have required different kinds of troops, with different rules of engagement. The coalition should have deployed vastly more military police and other troops trained for urban patrols, crowd control, civil reconstruction, and peace maintenance and enforcement. Tens of thousands of soldiers with sophisticated monitoring equipment should have been posted along the borders with Syria and Iran to intercept the flows of foreign terrorists, Iranian intelligence agents, money, and weapons.
But Washington failed to take such steps, for the same reasons it decided to occupy Iraq with a relatively light force: hubris and ideology. Contemptuous of the State Department’s regional experts who were seen as too “soft” to remake Iraq, a small group of Pentagon officials ignored the elaborate postwar planning the State Department had overseen through its “Future of Iraq” project, which had anticipated many of the problems that emerged after the invasion. Instead of preparing for the worst, Pentagon planners assumed that Iraqis would joyously welcome U.S. and international troops as liberators. With Saddam’s military and security apparatus destroyed, the thinking went, Washington could capitalize on the goodwill by handing the country over to Iraqi expatriates such as Ahmed Chalabi, who would quickly create a new democratic state. Not only would fewer U.S. troops be needed at first, but within a year, the troop levels could drop to a few tens of thousands.
Of course, these naive assumptions quickly collapsed, along with overall security, in the immediate aftermath of the war. U.S. troops stood by helplessly, outnumbered and unprepared, as much of Iraq’s remaining physical, economic, and institutional infrastructure was systematically looted and sabotaged. And even once it became obvious that the looting was not a one-time breakdown of social order but an elaborately organized, armed, and financed resistance to the U.S. occupation, the Bush administration compounded its initial mistakes by stubbornly refusing to send in more troops. Administration officials repeatedly deluded themselves into believing that the defeat of the insurgency was just around the corner-just as soon as the long, hot summer of 2003 ended, or reconstruction dollars started flowing in and jobs were created, or the political transition began, or Saddam Hussein was captured, or the interim government was inaugurated. As in Vietnam, a turning point always seemed imminent, and Washington refused to grasp the depth of popular disaffection.
Under its chief administrator, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the CPA (which ruled Iraq from May 2003 until June 2004) worked hard and creatively to craft a transition to a legitimate, viable, and democratic system of government while rebuilding the overall economy and society. As I saw during my brief tenure as a senior CPA adviser on governance earlier this year, the U.S. administration got a number of things right. But one cannot review the political record without underscoring the pervasive security deficit, which undermined everything else the coalition sought to achieve.
Any effort to rebuild a shattered, war-torn country should include four basic components: political reconstruction of a legitimate and capable state; economic reconstruction, including the rebuilding of the country’s physical infrastructure and the creation of rules and institutions that enable a market economy; social reconstruction, including the renewal (or in some cases, creation) of a civil society and political culture that foster voluntary cooperation and the limitation of state power; and the provision of general security, to establish a safe and orderly environment.
These four elements interact in intimate ways. Without legitimate, rule-based, and effective government, economic and physical reconstruction will lag and investors will refuse to risk their capital to produce jobs and new wealth. Without demonstrable progress on the economic front, a new government cannot develop or sustain legitimacy, and its effectiveness will quickly wane. Without the development of social capital-in the form of horizontal bonds of trust and cooperation in a (re)emerging civil society-economic development will not proceed with sufficient vigor or variety, and the new system of government will not be properly scrutinized or supported. And without security, everything else grinds to a halt.
In postconflict situations in which the state has collapsed, security trumps everything: it is the central pedestal that supports all else. Without some minimum level of security, people cannot engage in trade and commerce, organize to rebuild their communities, or participate meaningfully in politics. Without security, a country has nothing but disorder, distrust, and desperation-an utterly Hobbesian situation in which fear pervades and raw force dominates. This is why violence-ridden societies tend to turn to almost any political force that promises to provide order, even if it is oppressive. It is a big reason why the CPA was unable to spend most of the $18.6 billion for Iraqi reconstruction appropriated by Congress last fall. And it explains why a country must first have a state before it can become a democracy. The primary requirement of a state is that it hold a monopoly on the use of violence. By that measure, the body that the United States transferred power to in Baghdad on June 28 may have been a government-but it was not a state.
Even though insufficient forces were deployed to Iraq, much more could have been done with them to build security and contain the forces of disorder before the handoff. Unfortunately, not only did the CPA lack the resources for the job, it also lacked the understanding and organization. The effort to create a new Iraqi police force, for example, withered from haste, inefficiency, poor planning, and sheer incompetence. Newly minted Iraqi cops were rushed onto the job with too little training, insufficient vetting, and shamefully inadequate equipment. Although most had uniforms (of a sort), they lacked cars, radios, and body armor and were often outgunned by the criminals, terrorists, and saboteurs they faced. As vital symbols of the new Iraqi state, the police also quickly became “soft targets” for terrorist attacks, and coalition forces did too little too late to protect them.
Iraqi politicians, civic leaders, and government officials, as well as civilian coalition officials and their Iraqi aides, paid a heavy price for the lack of security. More than 100 Iraqi government workers were killed during the occupation, including several high-level officials and the occupant of the Governing Council’s rotating presidency. Iraqis collaborating with the occupation (including those lining up for jobs) became targets-especially translators, a fact that worsened the CPA’s already severe language gap. Although few CPA officials themselves were killed, many were attacked, and numerous civilian contractors were slain or kidnapped.
Insecurity drove the political occupation into a physical and psychological bunker. Already separated from Iraqis by the formidable security around the three-square-mile “Green Zone” (where the CPA was based) and around the CPA’s regional and provincial headquarters, coalition officials began to travel less and less with every passing month. By the early spring of this year, foreign officials and contractors could no longer safely move around the country without an armored car and a well-armed escort. And even these precautions failed to protect them from well-placed and powerful roadside bombs. The most secure means of transportation, helicopters, were usually unavailable to all but the highest officials-one of many shortages that lasted throughout the occupation and that the Pentagon was very slow and very inefficient in addressing.
Also absent was the determination to face down political threats, as the case of Muqtada al-Sadr made painfully clear. Sadr, a radical young Shiite cleric, sought to fan and exploit anti-American, nationalist, and Islamist sentiments in a bid for power. Although he lacked the religious knowledge and authority of his father (who was assassinated in 1999) or of more senior and respected Shiite clerics, Sadr managed to build a following among disaffected, unemployed, and poorly educated young men in Iraq’s cities. The coalition should have quickly developed a strategy to counter him and his al-Mahdi militia. Some Shiite leaders urged that Sadr be co-opted into the political process, while many moderate Shiites and CPA officials urged that he be dealt with through legal or military means. But the CPA did none of these things; instead, it prevaricated.In August 2003, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Sadr and 11 of his top henchmen (for the April 2003 murder of a moderate Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Majid al-Khoei). But the CPA kept the arrest warrants sealed, and over the subsequent months, as Sadr kept pushing, U.S. officials waited, warned, wavered, hesitated, and debated. Although coalition figures knew that Sadr’s organization had to be put out of business before any kind of decent political order could arise in Iraq, the various plans drawn up to take him down were never executed, apparently because Washington decided that the risks were too great. The same administration that was bold enough to launch an unpopular war against Saddam blanched at the prospect of confronting a bully such as Sadr-even though he was reviled by the majority of the Shiite population and the religious establishment.
There was certainly no shortage of warning signs, provocations, and justifications for removing Sadr. In October 2003, coalition forces intercepted dozens of busloads of his heavily armed followers as they headed to Karbala to seize control of the city and its holy shrines. On March 12 of this year, Sadr’s forces leveled the Gypsy village of Qawliyya, sending most of its 1,000 residents fleeing. That same month, Sadr’s organization publicly called for the assassination of Sayyid Farqad al-Qizwini, the most influential pro-U.S. cleric in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, and a number of his associates in a U.S.-supported pro-democracy movement. For six months, Sadr’s army and organization grew alarmingly in size, muscle, and daring. In a Taliban-style bid for social power, they seized public buildings, beat up moderate professors, took over classrooms, forced women to wear the hijab, set up illegal sharia courts, and imposed their own brutal penalties. Meanwhile, new Mahdi army recruits openly trained for terror and mayhem.
Yet when the coalition finally decided to act against them, its approach was impromptu and incomprehensibly chaotic. On March 28, Bremer ordered the closure of Sadr’s incendiary newspaper, Hawza, but did nothing to strike against the more dangerous elements of Sadr’s organization. Thecleric reacted by ordering his followers to rise up against the occupation. A few days later, on April 2, coalition forces arrested a top Sadr aide, Mustafa al-Yaccoubi, and Sadr responded by unleashing a full-scale insurgency in the Shiite south, for a time seizing control of Najaf, Karbala, and many other strategic sites and forging tactical ties with the Sunni insurgents who had taken control of Fallujah. In the subsequent weeks, after conceding control of Fallujah to a hastily constructed local militia that promised to reassert order, U.S. forces finally went to war with the Mahdi army, evicting it from most of its strongholds, killing or arresting many of its leaders, and largely defeating its troops. But Sadr remained at large, mocking the coalition’s demand for his arrest and maneuvering for power.
Not only did the fighting in April and May fail to eliminate Sadr’s forces, it also did nothing to counter Iraq’s other heavily armed militias. These include not only the battle-hardened Kurdish Pesh Merga (which number at least 50,000 fighters) but also the large and well-armed militias of the two most important Shiite religious parties, SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and Dawa. At the beginning of 2004, the CPA began negotiating an agreement with the semilitias for their disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) into the new Iraqi police and armed forces. The CPA’s plan was intelligent and comprehensive in design. But the Kurds, understandably wary of any new central Iraqi government, refused to agree to anything more than a superficial integration of their forces (with command structures intact) into the new Iraqi military, and it remains unclear whether the other large militias will truly demobilize and disarm or just warehouse their heavy weapons while temporarily joining the new armed forces. The ddr plan was supposed to have been finalized and announced on May 1. But it was set back seriously by the outbreak of twin insurgencies in Fallujah and the Shiite south in April. The U.S. military was forced to rely on the cooperation (or at least forbearance) of the SCIRI and Dawa militias to evict and defeat the Mahdi army, and this sharply reduced the CPA’s leverage over them. The plan was finally released in early June, but with little time left to implement it before the transfer of power. Even as the CPA insisted that the Mahdi army’s failure to comply would disqualify Sadr from participating in electoral politics, other Iraqi political leaders began negotiating with him to try to bring him into the political game.
It now seems unlikely that the weak and besieged new Iraqi government will have the will or capacity to enforce the demobilization plan. In fact, the new Iraqi state is caught in a Catch-22: to be viable, it must build up its armed forces as rapidly as possible. But the readiest sources of soldiers and police are the most powerful militias, which will probably allow their fighters to join the new military only if their command structures remain intact. Thus, if the fledgling Iraqi state hopes to truly defeat the militias, it may have to go to war with itself. That seems hard to imagine. Yet if Iraq tries to hold elections while the militias remain intact (in one guise or another), the campaign is likely to become a very bloody and undemocratic affair. Candidates will face assassination, weaker political opponents will be run out of town, and the electoral machinery will be hijacked by those with the most guns.
Even if the security situation improves enough to allow elections to go forward on time, Iraq could still get into further trouble if it follows the UN’s recommendation and uses a national-list system, apportioning seats in parliament on the basis of nationwide voting, since this would give the big regional and religious parties an added incentive to inflate their numbers through force and fraud. Should that occur, the biggest winners will be the best-armed and most-organized forces-the Kurds in the far north and the Iranian-backed Islamist parties in the Shiite south. The American occupation could wind up paving the way for the “election” of an Iranian-linked Islamist government in Baghdad.
Closing the Legitimacy Gap
As the last year in Iraq has made clear, decent governance is not possible without some minimal level of security. But security could not have been improved without significant progress on the political front. This was true in several respects. First, although some of the terrorist violence (particularly the suicide car bombings) was organized by outside forces, as the Bush administration claimed, much of it (including roadside bombings, the killing of contractors, and other forms of sabotage) was committed by Iraqis, mainly Sunnis who turned against the occupation because they believed it excluded them politically. Second, young Shiite men rose up in arms when their lack of access to jobs and other opportunities rendered them vulnerable to the appeals of militants such as Sadr. Third, political tensions raised the worrisome prospect of violence between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs, both on the volatile boundaries of the Kurdistan region (especially Kirkuk, where militant Kurds wanted to expel Arabs who had settled there during Saddam’s campaign of “Arabization”) and in the larger struggle over the future shape of the country. And fourth, the challenge of demobilizing the militias while building up the new Iraqi armed forces was largely a political problem. In all these cases, containing the violence required not only a strong and adept military response but also a sustained political effort to construct a broad-based, inclusive system with which all major Iraqi groups could identify.
The United States, however, lacked an effective political strategy for postwar Iraq, as became clear almost immediately after the invasion, when former General Jay Garner’s ill-fated Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance took charge in Baghdad. Part of the problem was that both Garner and Bremer never comprehended how Iraqis perceived them. Throughout the occupation, the coalition lacked the linguistic and area expertise necessary to understand Iraqi politics and society, and the few long-time experts present were excluded from the inner circle of decision-making in the CPA. Thus the coalition never grasped, for example, the fact that, although most Iraqis were grateful for having been liberated from a brutal tyranny, their gratitude was mixed with deep suspicion of the United States’ real motives (not to mention those of the United Kingdom, a former colonial ruler of Iraq); humiliation that the Iraqis themselves had proved unable to overthrow Saddam; and unrealistic expectations of the postwar administration, which Iraqis expected to quickly deliver them from their problems. Too many Iraqis viewed the invasion not as an international effort but as an occupation by Western, Christian, essentially Anglo-American powers, and this evoked powerful memories of previous subjugation and of the nationalist struggles against Iraq’s former overlords.
The CPA also failed to grasp that Saddam retained a base of popular support in Iraq even after his overthrow. Although he had brutalized plenty of Sunnis, much of the Sunni Arab population either supported him or opposed his ouster for fear that regime change would cost them-a 20 percent minority of the population-their historic monopoly over the state and its precious resources.
The occupation compounded its original errors of analysis with two strategic miscalculations. First, it launched a de-Baathification campaign that was much too broad, excluding from any meaningful role in the future state anyone who had held any kind of high-level position in the party, regardless of whether they were directly involved in serious crimes. And the most aggressive and politically ambitious advocate of radical de-Baathification, the controversial Ahmed Chalabi, was put in charge of the program.
The second mistake was made in May 2003, when, as one of his first official acts, Bremer ordered the dissolution of the Iraqi army. The army had already collapsed and scattered at the end of the invasion, and intensive vetting of its officer corps would have been necessary before it could have served any positive function in the new Iraqi state. Still, by formally dissolving it, the CPA lost the opportunity to reconstitute some portions of it to help restore order, and it left tens of thousands of armed soldiers and officers cut out of the new order and prime candidates for recruitment by the insurgency. Indeed, the American occupation created a context in which former Baathists, mainly Sunnis, not only faced the loss of their previous dominance but were excluded from any real share of power and resources. This situation pushed some Iraqis who might otherwise have been co-opted into the new system toward violent resistance, which came to seem like a rational strategy for driving away the Americans or at least changing the terms they were offering.
The United States also faced a more diffuse political problem in Iraq. Deep local suspicions of U.S. motives combined with the memory of Western colonialism and resentment of the U.S. stance in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to generate a massive lack of legitimacy for the occupation authority. Washington should have done two things to fill this gap: increased international participation in the political administration of the country (although this would have been difficult given international opposition to the war), and put legitimate Iraqi leaders in visible, meaningful governance roles as soon as possible.
The most straightforward way to do this would have been to hold elections. That was what Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered and influential Shiite religious leader in Iraq, wanted from the beginning. The experience of other postwar transitions, however, counseled strongly against a rapid move to national elections. With no electoral register, no administrative framework to organize balloting, no electoral rules, and no time or space for new political parties to emerge and mobilize, early national elections (any time within the first year of occupation) could well have precipitated a disastrous slide toward violence and polarization-even civil war. And they would likely have been swept in the south by Islamist parties, which enjoyed the huge initial advantage of having pre-existing organizations built up either underground or inexile in Iran.
The occupation pursued a variety of other strategies to fill the legitimacy void, with varying degrees of success. In each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and in most of its cities and larger towns, local coalition military commands, sometimes working with U.S. civilian contractors, formed representative councils through a mix of consultative and deliberative processes. In a few cases, particularly in the far south under British civil and military administration, rough-and-ready elections were organized using the crude method of the ration card system, which registered only Iraqi households, not individuals, but was believed to cover about 90 percent of the population. Officials in Basra province (containing the country’s second-largest city) wanted to experiment with direct elections for local councils, but this and other democratic initiatives were vetoed by CPA headquarters, which feared that any example of direct elections would undermine the CPA’s insistence that direct elections could not be organized anytime soon. There was also a fear of what elections would produce. As one British official lamented to me, the “CPA [officials] didn’t want anything to happen that they didn’t control-and this has been impossible to hidefrom the Iraqis.”
The most intractable and debilitating problem with the councils was not their lack of an electoral mandate, however. Indeed, CPA teams worked hard to remove their most corrupt and unrepresentative figures and bring in new faces representing as many groups as possible. In many cases, this process amounted to indirect elections. Rather, the problem with the councils was their evident powerlessness and lack of resources; in some cases, council members had to wait for months to receive their salaries. By failing to invest these councils with real resources and authority, the occupation missed a key opportunity to increase its legitimacy
After three months of costly delay, in July 2003 the occupation did constitute an indigenous national authority, albeit only an advisory one: the Iraqi Governing Council (GC). This body included the representatives of some obviously weighty Iraqi constituencies and political forces, including the two main Kurdish parties (the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), which had ruled the autonomous Kurdish region since its effective liberation from Saddam’s tyranny in 1991; two major Shiite political parties, SCIRI and Dawa; and some older parties (including the communists). Also included were figures close to Ayatollah Sistani and representatives of Iraq’s other social forces, including its crucially important tribes.
The GC was not bad as a first step, but it was hobbled by serious flaws. First was the image problem caused by the inclusion of too many controversial Iraqi exiles, particularly Chalabi, in widely visible and powerful roles. Second, the CPA failed to move rapidly enough toward the creation of a more representative and legitimate body. And third, it failed to encourage GC members to reach out and develop constituencies. During its tenure, it was not uncommon for the majority of the council to be out of the country at any given time. Most Iraqis never saw any of the council members. As a group, the GC did not distinguish itself.
The U.S. occupation officials also had a serious legitimacy problem with the international community. Having invaded Iraq without UN Security Council authorization or the support of most other democratic publics in the world, the United States was unable to convince many countries to take a meaningful role in the occupation, something that could have blunted suspicions of the coalition.
Even with that handicap, the UN did establish a fairly significant mission in Baghdad with the arrival on June 2, 2003, of Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of its best, most experienced peace-builders. Despite the UN’s questionable reputation in Iraq (a legacy of its involvement with the sanctions program), de Mello and his team were respected by Iraqis and quickly grasped the need for much more substantial Iraqi participation in postwar governance, including the need for the early establishment of an Iraqi interim government.
Unfortunately, the UN’s impact on the CPA never extended beyond a few cosmetic changes. This was due in part to the tragic events of August 19, 2003, when terrorists (probably al Qaeda members working with former Baathists) blew up the poorly protected UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing de Mello and more than a dozen other UN staffers and ultimately driving the UN out of Iraq. The attack was one of the worst tragedies the UN has ever suffered as an institution and will shape its thinking about and engagement in conflicts for many years to come.
Even before the attack, however, Washington-and Bremer, in Baghdad-proved unwilling to surrender any significant measure of control to the UN. The CPA leadership did not see a real need for the UN mission, other than to issue an occasional supportive press release. Even when de Mello, after meeting at length with Ayatollah Sistani, went to Bremer in mid-June to warn that a political bomb was about to explode-in the form of a fatwa from Sistani insisting that any constitution-making body for Iraq had to be popularly elected-Bremer dismissed the warning.
The obsession with control was an overarching flaw in the U.S. occupation from start to finish. In any postconflict international intervention, there is always a certain tension between legitimacy and control. Yet for most of the first year of occupation, the U.S. administration opted for the latter whenever the tradeoff presented itself.
That pattern began to change only when the November 15, 2003, “agreement” for political transition quickly unraveled and the administration finally turned to the UN for help. But it should have done so earlier. Washington’s legitimacy deficit was so huge that it should have tried, as soon as Garner was replaced in May 2003, to give the UN overall or co-equal responsibility with the CPA for administering postwar Iraq and managing the political transition. It is not clear that the UN would have accepted such a formally elevated role, but at thevery least de Mello should have been given much more authority and responsibility.
Building a Government
The Bush administration does deserve credit for adjusting its posture dramatically after the rapid implosion of its plan for a political transition in Iraq. After abandoning Bremer’s original approach-which had been to transfer sovereignty to Iraq only after a permanent constitution was written and a new government was democratically elected-Washington issued an ambitious new timetable on November 15 that called for the adoption of an interim constitution (the “Transitional Administrative Law”) by February 28, 2004; the indirect election (through a tiered system of caucuses) of a transitional parliament in the spring; and the election by that parliament of a government that would receive sovereignty on June 30. By mid-March 2005, a constituent assembly would be directly elected to write a permanent constitution, which would be submitted to a referendum by August, followed by direct elections for a new government by the end of the year.
This plan was an important improvement over the original, in that it recognized the need to accelerate the transfer of power and to provide a specific date by which it would occur. Much has been made of the choice of June 30, with critics of the Bush administration insisting it was driven by the American electoral calendar. But this criticism never made sense. In Iraq, it was always clear that Washington was being driven by an even more palpable imperative: the need to give Iraqis back their dignity and to empower them to determine their own course.
But June 30 was viewed skeptically by the Iraqi public, much of which was deeply suspicious of everything the United States said and did. And the plan had a more serious problem. From the very start, Ayatollah Sistani denounced it because the transitional parliament it envisaged would not be directly elected. Most Arab Iraqis (Sunni and Shiite) were unhappy with this element and feared that the caucus system proposed for elections would give far too much initial power to groups (such as the GC and the various local and provincial councils) that the CPA had appointed. To be fair, the problem was a complicated one. When it crafted the plan, the CPA had tried to vet it informally with Sistani through an intermediary. But as often happens when one works through intermediaries, the signals became crossed, and the CPA thought that Sistani had consented-perhaps because the ayatollah (a careful scholar) had not been able to study the plan in writing and so did not grasp the features that would later cause him to denounce it.
In the face of Sistani’s criticism, the CPA was initially inclined to move forward anyway, on the theory that one man should not be allowed to veto a process. The GC supported the plan (after all, it would have had a significant role in selecting the caucus participants), as did other Iraqi groups working with the CPA. But a political confrontation over the plan started building in Iraq, and it became clear that the United States could not referee a dispute involving itself. Then, in December, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser (who had recently been given overall authority to coordinate policy on Iraq), and her top NSC deputy on Iraq, Robert Blackwill, were advised that it might be possible to persuade the UN to re-engage in Iraq in some kind of mediating or facilitating role. Even better, they heard that Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat who was then completing a successful UN constitution-building mission in Afghanistan, might be recruited to lead this effort. Rice and Blackwill greeted this prospect with genuine enthusiasm and initiated negotiations with the UN. In January, the parties agreed that the UN would return to Iraq in early February, initially in the form of a small mission led by Brahimi.
Although Bremer had initially wanted the UN to play only a limited role, he gradually accepted a broader mandate for Brahimi’s mission and ordered the CPA to give the UN its full cooperation. This enabled Brahimi and his advisers (some of whom had gotten to know the new Iraqi political landscape well while working under de Mello) to negotiate a breakthrough compromise by the end of their visit on February 13. Brahimi persuaded Sistani, through patient and methodical discussions, that “reasonably credible elections” simply could not be organized by June 30, and that it would take at least eight months to achieve them once preparations began. This led Sistani to accept the famous compromise, which was affirmed by Security Council Resolution 1546 on June 8. Elections for a transitional parliament (as well as for prime minister and a cabinet) were postponed until December of this year at the earliest or January 31, 2005, at the latest. Meanwhile, the ponderous caucus system for choosing a government was scrapped. And an unelected Iraqi Interim Government with limited powers, created in consultation with the UN mission, was to be given power on June 30 (in fact, the date was June 28).
The selection of the new government by Brahimi, in consultation with the CPA, the GC, and a wide range of other Iraqi constituencies, did not proceed so smoothly. Ambassador Blackwill favored a straightforward handover of transitional power to the GC (with perhaps another 25members added to make it more inclusive), despite its lack of popularity. Brahimi, who better understood the low esteem in which Iraqis held the GC, favored a truly new government with an outsider as prime minister. The members of the GC wanted to elevate themselves to positions of power and jockeyed intensively for the top jobs. In the end, each side got part of what it wanted. The Bush administration got its choice for prime minister, the most powerful position: Ayad Allawi. And Brahimi largely got the cabinet he wanted, composed of a number of very competent and respected Iraqi ministers, including some existing officials widely considered to have been honest and effective. Significantly, 6 of the 31 cabinet ministers were women. Powerful forces on the GC were not pleased, however. Having demanded the post of prime minister or president in what they viewed as a binational Arab-Kurdish state, the two Kurdish parties had to settle for the posts of deputy premier and deputy president. Dawa and SCIRI, which had also coveted the top slots, were given the other deputy presidency and the finance ministry, respectively. And two individuals lost out completely: Adnan Pachachi, perhaps the most liberal member of the GC and the one most responsible for the democratic features of the interim constitution; and Ahmed Chalabi, who, in seeking to satisfy many different constituencies and to finesse his once close relationship with the United States, may have finally outwitted even his own brilliant self.
One of Bremer’s-and the Bush administration’s-highest priorities was to leave Iraq with an interim constitutional framework that would provide a strong, and hopefully enduring, framework for democratic government and the protection of individual rights. The drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) was thus a crucial element of the November 15 plan. Pachachi, the chairman of the GC’s constitutional drafting committee, shared the liberal values and aspirations of the United States for this document, and so, quite passionately, did the Iraqi and Iraqi-American legal specialists he tapped to do the initial writing. For several weeks, from late December 2003 through early February 2004, they worked, alongside CPA advisers, to craft a document that became much more of a full-blown interim constitution than some (including the UN) thought necessary or appropriate.
Both Iraqis and Americans agreed that the document needed strong and explicit protections for individual rights, and the bill of rights they came up with did not prove controversial. More problematic was how to structure the government, how to divide power between the center and regions (in particular, the Kurdistan regional government), what role to give religion, and what process to endorse for the adoption of the final constitution. These issues brought out the deep political and social cleavages in contemporary Iraq-between Islamists and more secular forces, between Shia and Sunni, and between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. The drafters produced a document that assured freedom of religion and that nodded toward Islam without basing the state on it. For the time being, this seems an acceptable compromise. Similarly, the formula for a government headed by a prime minister, but with some powers of appointment, supervision, and legislative veto retained by a three-person presidency council, also proved broadly acceptable. Indeed, this was a formula more or less mandated by the GC from the beginning.
One of the toughest sets of issues concerned the vertical division of power and the place of Kurdistan within the Iraqi nation and its political system. Iraqi Kurdish leaders insisted emphatically that their region needed to retain the autonomy it had exercised since the end of the Persian Gulf War. Having suffered terrible oppression and discrimination from the central government in Baghdad, they were determined to protect themselves in the future. Moreover, many Kurds-particularly younger ones, who had reached maturity after 1991 without ever speaking Arabic or identifying with the Iraqi state-favored outright independence, and their leaders worried that if the new system did not preserve their autonomy, these demands might grow. Thus the Kurds pressed for a highly decentralized-almost confederal-system, while also making it clear that they would settle for a preservation of their autonomy and veto rights. To accommodate these demands, the TAL established that all decisions by the Presidency Council (which, presumably, would have one Kurdish member) would have to be unanimous and blessed the continued existence of the regional Kurdistan government, to which it gave greater powers than were granted to the other provincial governments. In the final round-the-clock GC negotiations to complete the document in early March, the Kurds also made a new demand: that any three provinces (and Iraq has three predominantly Kurdish provinces) get the right, by a two-thirds vote in each, to reject the final constitution in a referendum. To prevent a Kurdish walkout, this provision was inserted into the TAL as Article 61c.
Although the constitutional bargain gave the Kurds what they insisted on, it left many Iraqis, especially the Shiites, disaffected. Sistani, for example, raised strong objections, particularly to Article 61c, which he and other Shiites felt would render meaningless the Shiites’ power as the demographic majority in the country. This led to a last-minute crisis in which most of the Shiite delegates withdrew from the final negotiations and went to Najaf to consult with Sistani. Although they finally returned and signed the document, giving it unanimous GC consent, they did so only ambiguously, pledging to amend it (particularly Article 61c) later.
At this point, the CPA faced a serious dilemma. The negotiations over the TAL had already stretched beyond the February 28 deadline laid out in the November 15 plan. If the country was going to achieve sovereignty on June 30, this first big step had to be completed so that the process could move on to the remaining work. But by rushing to complete the document without a national debate and the forging of a sustainable consensus, the GC and the CPA covered up deep divisions that quickly boiled to the surface. While happy with a number of the document’s features, including those providing for individual rights and an independent judiciary, many Iraqis felt that it granted too many “special rights” to the Kurds and other minorities. Many worried that the document would be a formula for the breakup of the country.
The CPA had long been planning a campaign to sell the TAL to the Iraqi people once it was adopted. A British advertising agency with offices in the Middle East had been hired to produce a campaign of emotional and highly symbolic television and newspaper ads. Yet inexplicably, this campaign did not begin until several weeks after the TAL’s signing. This allowed it to be preempted by the appearance of crude leaflets on the streets of Iraq’s cities, which denounced the TAL as unfair, unrepresentative, and undemocratic, “a dictatorship of the minorities.” These denunciations caught on with the Iraqi public and largely neutralized the CPA’s expensive public-relations effort before it ever got off the ground.
I encountered the popular discontent firsthand at public lectures and smaller seminars held in Baghdad, Tikrit, Balad, Basra, Nasariya, and Hilla in March, where I tried to explain the key principles of the TAL and to stimulate discussion. There was plenty of discussion, but almost all of it was critical. Many Iraqis-provincial and local council members, clerics, sheikhs, civic activists, and other opinion leaders-arrived with the leaflet in hand and even quoted from it, as they passionately denounced the document. Repeatedly I was asked, How could such a document be adopted without public debate? Why was one section of the country given so much power? Even when I pointed out some logical inconsistencies in these concerns-for example, that the requirement that all presidency council decisions be unanimous made it much more difficult for the presidency (and hence the Kurds) to veto legislation-people were not much mollified. The anger and frustration were palpable and suggested several things: that Iraqis wanted democracy, though they had a very partial and majoritarian understanding of what it entailed; that Iraqis wanted more voice and participation in government; and that the CPA and the GC were widely distrusted and heldin low esteem.
Something should have been done before June 30 to address the widespread grievances with the document, particularly Article 61c, to prevent a major crisis down the road. The lack of broad consensus raised the risk that when the transitional parliament is elected early next year it will disavow the document and amend it at will. I suggested to Bremer and some of my CPA colleagues that we use the instrument of the annex that was to be written to the tal-providing for the structure of the interim government between June 30 and the election of the transitional parliament at the end of this year or early next-to negotiate some amendments. One Shiite political leader with ties to Sistani had proposed that the three-province veto be transferred from the referendum to the deliberations and voting in the transitional parliament, and that the veto be narrowed to cover only issues concerning the rights and powers of provinces and regions within Iraq’s federal system. To protect other minority rights, a provision could also have been adopted requiring a special majority (say, three-fifths) for adoption of the constitution by the Transitional National Assembly. This proposal would have guaranteed that Kurdistan could preserve its regional autonomy but would not have enabled the Kurds or any other minority to veto (and thus in the parliamentary negotiations, shape) every aspect of the constitution. I do not know if such a compromise would have been acceptable to Sistani and his followers, but some alternative should have been discussed then, before the election of a transitional parliament made compromise even more difficult. Yet inside the thick walls of Saddam’s old presidential palace where the CPA was headquartered, such suggestions fell on deaf ears. Public debate over the interim constitution was abruptly terminated and was soon eclipsed by the outbreak of wider violent insurgencies in April.
Can Iraq Become a Democracy?
Although the U.S. occupation and the CPA’s effort to design and foster democracy in Iraq were deeply flawed, there were other, more positive aspects of the story, and these offer real hope for the future. Through various offices and mechanisms including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, the CPA presided over an ambitious effort to promote pluralist democracy in Iraq. Some financial assistance and technical support was delivered very quickly and sensitively to emerging Iraqi civil society organizations, such as women’s groups, youth organizations, professional associations, and think tanks working to expand and stimulate democratic participation. These contributions proved very helpful in some cases, allowing the Iraqi Higher Women’s Council, for example, to establish a minimum quota (25 percent) for the representation of women in parliament. Training programs were set up to offer nascent Iraqi political parties the skills and tools needed to organize and mobilize, and energetic and creative CPA officials helped channel this assistance to the right places. The achievements were particularly impressive in Iraq’s south-central region, where millions of dollars were spentbuilding a network of 18 Internet-linked local democracy centers (one each for human rights, women, and development in each of six provinces), as well as a regional democracy training center in Hilla that includes a lecture hall, conference room, two state-of-the-art computer rooms, and more than a dozen offices for NGOs. This same assistance helped to build a university for humanistic (and democratic) studies in Hilla, in a gleaming former presidential mosque, complete with a radio station and a vast center for translating works on democracy into Arabic.
Like many CPA officials, I found many Iraqis to have a deep ambition to live in a decent, democratic, and free society and found them prepared to do the hard work that building a democracy will require. Above all else, Iraqis want security: they want to be free from the terror that disfigured their lives under Saddam and that has continued, in a different form, since the war. But most favor achieving this security through democratic means, not under some “benevolent” strongman.
Because of the failures and shortcomings of the occupation-as well as the intrinsic difficulties that any occupation following Saddam’s tyranny was bound to confront-it is going to take a number of years to rebuild the Iraqi state and to construct any kind of viable democratic and constitutional order in Iraq. The post-handover transition is going to be long, and initially very bloody. It is not clear that the country is going to be able to conduct reasonably credible elections by next January. And even if those elections are held in a minimally acceptable fashion, it is hard to imagine that the over-ambitious transition timetable for the remainder of 2005 will be kept. Nevertheless, the end of occupation and the transfer of authority to an interim government on June 28 offered at least a chance for a new beginning. And there is no alternative to this transitional program that does not involve one awful scenario or another: civil war, massive renewed repression, the establishment of a safe haven for terrorist organizations-or quite possibly all three.
The transition in Iraq is going to need a huge amount of international assistance-political, economic, and military-for years to come. Hopefully, the U.S. performance will improve now that Iraqis are in charge of their own future. It is going to be costly and it will continue to be frustrating. Yet a large number of courageous Iraqi democrats, many with comfortable alternatives abroad, are betting their lives and their fortunes on the belief that a new and more democratic political order can be developed and sustained in Iraq. The United States owes it to them-and to itself-to continue to help them.