Full Speed Ahead
Iraq takes another step toward eventual self-rule.


If all goes well, Iraq will have a new council of ministers within the next few days. Named by the governing assembly, the council will be charged with rebuilding a minimum of state structures before Iraq regains the full exercise of its national sovereignty. The speed with which Iraq is being chaperoned toward self-rule is a signal that the U.S.-U.K. Coalition is anxious to shorten its direct involvement in that war-torn country.

Nevertheless, a hasty transfer of power to an Iraqi government could still be risky both for the U.S.-led Coalition and for the Iraqi people. The reason is that Iraqi state structures will have to be rebuilt from scratch at a time that the country lacks either any army or a credible police force to impose the decisions of a new national authority. Any new government could quickly find itself isolated while local and even tribal mini-authorities emerge throughout the country. (This has happened in Afghanistan where the government does not control even the capital Kabul.)

One point must be clear at the outset: Iraq must never again find itself saddled with a brutal despotic regime. The only way to get the balance right is to organize free and fair elections as soon as possible. Holding such elections should be the first and most important task of the new council of ministers. Holding elections, however, requires the existence of a constitutional framework. Iraq needs a new constitution. Several drafts are already in circulation, representing the views of different political currents. The governing assembly must publish these drafts and organize a popular debate around the principles of a new constitution. This could be followed with the election of a constituent assembly early next year paving the way for parliamentary elections before the end of 2004.

There are, of course, those who claim that the Iraqis are not yet ready for a pluralist system and that any free elections could either emphasize the nation’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions or bring to power the most extremist and demagogic elements within each community. Fear, however, is never a good basis for serious politics. The U.S. and its allies must trust the democratic process and allow the people of Iraq to express their views in full freedom. There is no reason why a majority of Iraqis would wish to plunge their nation into uncertainty by electing individuals and parties with extremist ideologies and programs.

A close examination of the existing Iraqi parties and groups, all of which are represented in the governing assembly, shows that none has an extremist agenda. By any standard, for a country just emerging from a major war combined with regime change, Iraq today is a relatively calm and peaceful place. The credit for that goes to the civic culture of the Iraqi people themselves who have been able to draw on their traditional networks of authority, such as village elders, tribal chiefs, and religious leaders, to fill the gap left by the disintegration of the regime. The spate of attacks on U.S. targets may be making the headlines, but this does not change the big picture in Iraq. (In postwar Germany and Japan attacks on the U.S.-led allies continued for more than a year before fizzling out.)

It is important to reassure the Iraqi people by presenting them with a realistic timetable for enacting a new constitution and holding elections. The governing assembly must make transparency its watchword. It must put an end to a long tradition of secretive decision-making designed to keep the people in the dark.

Ever since it came into being in 1921-22 as a state, Iraq has not been able to solve the fundamental problem of legitimacy. The country’s first regime was imposed by the British who imported a king, built an army, and concocted a largely Ottoman ruling elite for the new state. The regimes that followed the fall of the monarchy in 1958 were even more illegitimate because they depended on small groups of conspirators backed by this or that foreign power. Today, however, Iraq has its first chance of getting a regime that enjoys genuine legitimacy. That legitimacy cannot come from Bremer Pasha. It can only come from the people of Iraq, expressing their wishes in free and fair elections under international supervision. If that happens Iraq could become another success story for the U.S., joining the list of nations that were democratized with American support.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist and author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam, and NRO contributor. He’s reachable through


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