Bush’s Challenge
Will Iraqis“rise to the responsibilities of a free people”?


In his Sunday evening address on postwar Iraq, President Bush set three overall objectives: establishing security; enlisting broader international support; and “helping Iraqis assume responsibility for their own defense and their own future.”

Whether or not any further international support for U.S. forces will be forthcoming on acceptable terms — or even prove helpful in that unlikely event — remains anyone’s guess. But the ongoing violence in Iraq — and the mixed responses of Iraqi leaders — make clear that the president’s other two aims can only be pursued in tandem and at once.

Hence President Bush’s challenge to the Iraqi people and their leaders: “Now they must rise to the responsibilities of a free people and secure the blessings of their own liberty.”

Nowhere was this challenge — and the uncertain response — more evident than in the aftermath of the horrific August 29 terrorist bombing in Najaf that killed at least 100 worshipers at Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine. This attack was a deliberate strike at Iraq’s fragile political center of gravity: its long-oppressed Shiite majority — roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s 25 million citizens — and their mainstream clerical leadership. Its principal target was Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, whose combined religious standing, political influence, and increasingly pragmatic views made him a pivotal figure among Iraq’s most senior Shiite clerics, or mujtahids.

Hakim’s assassination has left a vacuum in Iraqi religious and political life, especially since the only functioning Iraqi institutions — the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the senior Shiite clerical establishment — have plainly failed to assume responsibility for coming to grips with the ongoing crisis that threatens to make Iraq ungovernable.

Within hours of the Najaf atrocity, several IGC members reflexively blamed U.S. forces for not protecting a site from which they had been explicitly — and quite publicly — barred by the city’s most-senior Shiite clerics. Some even held U.S. forces, rather than the perpetrators, responsible for all such violence: “They are responsible for all blood that is shed everywhere in Iraq.” Another IGC member had this to say: “I think someone is writing up a statement, somebody, I’m not sure. We don’t have a satellite, you know, that’s one of the problems. The Americans should give us a satellite.” The Americans should give us a satellite.

Bear in mind that the 25-member IGC frittered away the past two months while preoccupied almost exclusively with its own prerogatives: Electing nine rotating chairmen (where even Bosnia made do with just three); and expanding the number of ministries for the sole purpose of allowing each member to claim one post for his own faction. As for the IGC’s work routine, an Iraqi staffer summed it up this way:

On the council, someone makes a suggestion, then it goes around the room, with everyone talking about it, and then by that time, it’s late afternoon and time to go home. We don’t get a lot done.

Similarly, the senior Shiite clerical leadership seems utterly paralyzed in the face of a grave Iranian-directed, Wahhabi-funded challenge to its own authority fronted by the opportunistic clerical upstart, Moqtadr Sadr.

Last week’s abrupt policy reversal by the Bush administration in seeking greater U.N. involvement threatens to prolong this already-unacceptable period of stasis and drift. For at least some Iraqi factions will be tempted to continue sitting on their hands in hopes of playing off one set of foreigners against the other, a favorite regional pastime since Britain and France divided up the Near East after the First World War. The likely result is further postponement of painful but necessary steps to address Iraq’s most pressing concerns, not least the worsening security situation.

To be sure, the overall absence of effective Iraqi leadership to date is partly the legacy of 35 years of ruthlessly effective dictatorship. Just five months have passed since Saddam’s statue was toppled in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9. But Saddam’s republic of fear lasted a full generation, during which a death warrant was the price for telling the truth, taking responsibility or exercising initiative. Survival in turn was a matter of conforming and escaping notice. Little wonder that Iraq’s political class as a whole is so ill-prepared to exercise responsible or accountable political leadership; and that Iraqis more generally display an unbecoming sense of grievance and entitlement (“Let George do it”) that NRO contributor Amir Taheri rightly characterizes as an unhelpful “room-service mentality.”

To understand, however, is not to excuse. Business as usual is unacceptable. What is to be done?

1. Devolve explicit security responsibilities to the IGC. President Bush has now forcefully accepted the repeated calls of Iraqi political and religious leaders for Iraqis themselves to assume a larger share of security responsibilities. Last week’s formation of a security liaison body between the IGC and the U.S.-U.K. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is an essential first step toward Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for designated areas and categories of sites (as Ahmad Chalabi spells out).

The trick will be to set realistic security challenges while increasing Iraqi capacity through coalition training and support — without creating private armies controlled by the various factions. But the overall aim is to introduce a much-needed element of accountability running from the cop on the beat to his local and regional superiors to the IGC’s chosen interior minister — and ultimately to the IGC itself.

This approach is not an exercise in blame-shifting. It recognizes that Iraqis are better able than Americans to obtain the local intelligence and cooperation necessary to defeat the Baathist/jihadi insurgency. And it acknowledges that Iraqi security forces — like their political masters — must learn how to walk before they can run. Now is the time to intensify these efforts, beginning at the top, by holding Iraq’s senior political leaders to the same standards of accountability as their local counterparts working on the ground throughout Iraq — often quite effectively — with young American military officers.

2. Speak plainly to Iraq’s Shiite clerical establishment. Iraq’s senior Shiite clerics still shrink from acknowledging that they are in a fight to the death with an internal faction backed by Iran and funded by Wahhabi money. This same faction is widely regarded as responsible for the April 10 murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent clerical moderate, and the August 24 bomb attack that killed three bodyguards of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim (the late Ayatollah Hakim’s nephew). A not so gentle reminder is in order that Iraq’s mujtahids stand to lose far more than does the U.S. unless they reclaim their fast-dwindling authority. For it’s ultimately up to the clerical establishment, not the U.S., to face down this challenge and demonstrate its continued relevance.

Time is running short. NRO’s Michael Ledeen reports that Moqtadr Sadr has been designated as the head of Iraqi Hezbollah by Iran’s sinister de facto ruler, Mohammed Hashemi Rafsanjani; and the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid reports that a radical Sunni cleric (Ahmed Kubeisi) is funneling huge sums from “private” Saudi sources to Sadr (precisely the sort of Shiite-Sunni collaboration that many regional ‘experts’ blithely dismiss as unthinkable). A useful first step would be to put this word out on the street, where suspicion of Iranian designs runs high and hostility to Wahhabi influence and money runs higher still. A second is to end the studied public coyness regarding the presence of U.S. forces — just as the late Ayatollah Hakim risked his own prestige by deputizing his younger brother to serve on the IGC.

As in the case of the IGC, the threat of irrelevance and supercession — or worse — is a powerful incentive indeed.

3. Reach prompt agreement on the overall outlines of the new constitution. Whether Free Iraq succeeds or joins the ranks of failed states depends largely on getting the big constitutional issues right. If it has not already done so, the CPA would do well to make unmistakably clear that not everything is up for grabs; and that certain red lines and necessary features will shape any acceptable constitutional settlement. Vital and legitimate U.S. national interests are at stake, especially given the ongoing expenditure of blood, treasure and prestige.

The basic principle of any constitutional order is that of limitation. The essential means to the end of limited government are basic individual rights, reinforced by structural devices like separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism.

Few Iraqis will need much convincing of the virtues of limited government after suffering the vices of unlimited tyranny. Where consensus is less likely is in the application of the principle of limitation to the relationship between religion and the state, especially given the broad range of views on the subject within both the Sunni and Shiite traditions. This genuine diversity of opinion — as well as the presence of religious and ethnic minorities — precludes the new Iraqi state from possessing any competence to determine or enforce religious truth (specifically including any particular version of Islamic law).

This principle of limitation finds strong support in the particular historical experience and theological tradition of Iraq’s Shiite community. Bitter historical experience of Sunni dominance — throughout the Arab world and in Iraq itself under Ottoman, British and Baathist rule — has bred considerable skepticism regarding an all-powerful, monistic state fusing political and religious authority in the manner of the former Sunni caliphate — or that of the present Shiite clerical tyranny in Iran. Shiite ambivalence toward state power is powerfully expressed in the basic theological premise holding all political authorities at best provisional, if not actually illegitimate. In this view, the proper role of the clergy is to safeguard authentic teaching from political manipulation; to mediate between rulers and ruled; and, above all, to shape the values of the community by teaching and witness.

In short, there’s no necessary contradiction between an Iraqi state reflecting Islamic values — just as Toqueville’s America reflected predominantly Christian “habits of the heart” — without also adopting and enforcing a single interpretation of Islam. There’s a balance to be struck between Sudanese sharia and Swedish secularism that combines these elements: positive state neutrality, rightful autonomy for all religious traditions, and individual religious freedom. And now is the time to reach agreement on these general principles — in order to avoid unpleasant surprises, awkward faits accomplis and potentially disastrous recriminations.

Iraq’s Shiites in particular are keenly aware that they have few well-wishers in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where their coreligionists are a small and often despised minority (not least in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan). Nor do Iraq’s Arab neighbors wish to see a stable, democratic and prosperous Iraq emerge from the ruins of Saddam’s tyranny. For Iraq’s Shiites — and for Iraqis generally — the beginning of wisdom lies in deciding whether or not to stand with their natural allies against their common enemies.

John F. Cullinan, a lawyer, formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review