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Iraq's political leaders "cannot go on like this."


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“The dog ate our homework.”

That’s how the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) would have to respond if today were the Dec. 15 U.N. Security Council deadline for reporting concrete progress toward setting “a timetable and a program for the drafting a new constitution for Iraq and for the holding of democratic elections.”

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It is politically unthinkable that the Bush administration will allow its handpicked Iraqi political leaders to appear empty-handed before the Security Council next month, just one month after President Bush made Iraq’s democratic transformation the centerpiece of his bold “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East”–and just one month before the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.

Amidst unmistakable signs of panic, prompted by the ticking of the clock, senior U.S. officials are finally acknowledging that the IGC (formed on July 13) has accomplished “nothing of substance” since belatedly appointing 25 cabinet ministers on Sept. 1. “We’re unhappy with all of them,” according to one official quoted anonymously by the Washington Post on Nov. 9. “They’re not acting as a legislative or governing body, and we need to get moving. They just don’t make decisions when they need to.” That’s why these same officials are reportedly “deeply frustrated” and “increasingly alarmed by the [IGC's] failure to take decisive action,” especially regarding a new constitution.

“They cannot go on like this.” That was the blunt message reportedly delivered at a recent IGC meeting by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Only a few of the 24 members were actually on hand, as most are out of the country at any given time, with as few as four or five showing up for meetings. The upshot is that the IGC has failed to provide necessary policy guidance for ministries, exercise proper oversight or–worst of all–communicate effectively with the Iraqi people and thereby gain desperately needed legitimacy.

Nowhere has the IGC failed more dismally than in its paramount responsibility to chart a course for preparing a new constitution. On Aug. 12 the IGC appointed a broadly representative commission of experts charged with recommending procedures for drafting and ratifying a constitution; but the commission dissolved in deadlock last month after failing to resolve the threshold question of whether to elect or select delegates to a constitutional convention.

awareWhat has paralyzed the constitutional commission and the IGC is Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s June fatwa mandating nationwide elections as the sole legitimate means for choosing delegates to a constitutional convention. Ayatollah Sistani is first among equals in the four-man collective leadership that heads up Iraq’s senior Shiite clerical establishment; and his views carry enormous weight among Iraq’s two-thirds Shiite majority. Sistani recently reiterated the substance of his June fatwa in response to a written question from a Baghdad newspaper:

These [occupation] forces do not have any authority to appoint members of a constitutional commission. There is no guarantee that this commission will write a constitution that matches the higher interests of the Iraqi people and expresses their national identity. That identity rests on pure Islamic faith and noble social values …. We must first hold general elections so that each eligible Iraqi can elect representatives to a constituent assembly to write a constitution. A general referendum will follow on the constitution that the assembly approves. All of the believers must request this and do their best to see that it happens. May God lead all of us toward what is good and sound (emphasis added).
Non-Shiites–mainly Sunnis, Kurds, and Iraq’s other religious and ethnic minorities–are rightly concerned by the prospect of winner-take-all majoritarianism based on the Shiites’ huge demographic preponderance. And many Shiites are themselves concerned by the prospect of undue clerical influence in any early election, especially since the clergy are by far better organized than any other group in Iraq’s nascent civil society.

Ultimately at issue is whether the clergy functions as one of several legitimate and respected voices in the Iraqi public square or instead as the sole arbiter of all public-policy issues. Fortunately, the clergy’s proper role in Iraqi public life does not need to be settled once and for all in order to reach a workable accommodation for resolving the most immediately pressing issue: how best to choose delegates for a constitutional convention.

Ayatollah Sistani’s principal concern seems to be preventing the CPA from selecting delegates directly–a possibility that the CPA itself has rejected–or indirectly through the IGC itself. His overall aim–and it’s an entirely legitimate one–is to ensure a new constitution made by and for Iraqis, unlike its 1925 British-imposed predecessor.

One way to address this concern would be to hold regional assemblies in Iraq’s 18 provinces, a geographical approach offering a more-neutral mechanism than the straightforward ethnic and sectarian quotas used to pick IGC members. This would also avoid the insuperable practical difficulties of holding nationwide elections in the absence of an accurate and agreed census in the midst of an ongoing insurgency. There will be time enough for elections when a constitution is put to a nationwide referendum, followed by parliamentary general elections. To insist otherwise is to confuse ends and means.

Now is also the time to revisit two largely unexamined assumptions that have shaped U.S. policy in regard to political development and security issues.

First, the CPA has long operated on the unspoken assumption that failure to satisfy any of the political demands of Iraq’s senior Shiite leaders will automatically result in them making Iraq ungovernable. To be sure, there’s no question that Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite community is that nation’s political center of gravity; and that the tacit approval of the Coalition’s occupation by the most senior Shiite clerics has been one of the key factors underlying relative stability in most of Iraq. But this reality hardly precludes robust, behind-the-scenes, give-and-take with the clerical establishment on a whole range of issues. Iraq’s clerical leaders–whose authority ultimately derives from consent–happen to share the surrounding culture’s zeal for striking bargains; they’re not delicate creatures. What’s more, Ayatollah Sistani and his colleagues are by all accounts rational actors and Iraqi patriots: None stands to gain by making Iraq ungovernable and thereby vulnerable to hostile and predatory neighbors. How exactly would Iraq’s Shiites–already a despised minority throughout much of the Arab and Muslim worlds–benefit from domination by implacably hostile regimes or clerical establishments in Riyadh, Damascus, or Tehran?

One hopes that the career State Department officials from the Near East Bureau who dominate the CPA’s policy staff will be able to find a common language for the unfamiliar task of dealing directly with religious leaders with political clout. Bear in mind that these clerics understand their role as doing God’s work, not simply as political operators. What’s needed above all is the capacity to grasp–in other than purely instrumental terms–mixed religious and political concerns. My own experience with State–going back to early 1998 with the secretary of state’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad–offers little ground for optimism.

Second, the CPA can no longer afford to treat its friends and enemies more or less alike. That’s the lesson of the mounting insurgency being carried out in and around the Sunni heartlands north and west of Baghdad. To paraphrase President Bush, Iraq’s Sunni minority must be made to choose between standing with free Iraqis or with Baathist and foreign terrorists. For it must be made unmistakably clear to Sunni political, tribal and religious leaders that the wrong choice–or the failure to choose–will result in the imposition of exceedingly harsh measures, beginning with isolation and reduced access to scarce resources like electric power and reconstruction funds, mitigated only by appropriate moral and legal limits. That’s the approach advocated in recent days by two of the most astute foreign-policy observers, Jim Hoagland and Ralph Peters. In other words, the train is leaving the station; and Iraqi Sunnis need to decide whether they will be on it or under it.

Last week President Bush announced a potentially revolutionary reordering of U.S. grand strategy based on the expansion of freedom (“the calling of our time”) as the linchpin of U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world. The cornerstone of this strategy is “a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East [that] will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”

While the president praised five states in the region for small steps toward democratization, he was unable to cite any such progress in Iraq beyond the mere fact that “we’re working closely with Iraqi citizens as they prepare a constitution, as they move toward free elections and take increasing responsibility for their own affairs.” It is frankly embarrassing that the president cannot report any concrete political progress at the national level in the very place where the U.S. actually controls the political-development process and has committed some $20 billion in non-military investment alone for the coming year.

The next 30 days offer a rapidly closing window of opportunity for turning around a thoroughly unacceptable state of affairs.

John F. Cullinan, an expert in human-rights and international law, formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.



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