Seize The Moment
Racing against the clock to secure vital U.S. interests in Iraq.


After pinpointing and plucking Saddam Hussein from a hole in the ground in a state the size of California, how does the U.S. translate this stunning demonstration of military power and professionalism into effective political leverage that safeguards vital U.S. national interests during Iraq’s stalled political transition?

In just over six months, an Iraqi transitional legislative assembly–however chosen–will assume full sovereign authority. That date is set in stone, thanks to the American electoral calendar and to aroused Iraqi expectations. Yet between now and then, nearly every other issue remains to be settled between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

With so much up in the air–and so much at stake–how does the U.S. secure an acceptable political outcome that begins to justify its ongoing outlay of blood, treasure, and prestige? What’s a workable strategy for bringing about the possibility of a more democratic and decent Iraq that’s at peace with itself and its neighbors?

The immediate challenge is to put back on track the November 15 “Agreement on Political Process” that was single-handedly derailed by Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani. Under this agreement, a transitional assembly selected through regional caucuses would form a fully sovereign Iraqi government on July 1, 2004, based on a “Fundamental Law”–or interim constitution–now being worked out within agreed parameters by the CPA and IGC.

Ayatollah Sistani has insisted on direct elections for the transitional assembly, as well as assurances that the interim constitution will defer to Islam, most likely in the form of a blanket prohibition against any legislation deemed contrary to Islam by unelected clerical overseers. His first demand, which concerns electoral mechanics, is eminently negotiable; but his second, which wholly subordinates politics to religious ideology (Islamism), unduly risks creating a failed state.

The imperfect November 15 agreement is by now the only game in town. It’s the only available framework for resolving how to choose Iraq’s transitional government and settle its basic rules of the road in the form of an interim constitutional. These are nominally separate issues but underlying opposition to U.S. policy in both cases is the impetus to eliminate all U.S. influence over Iraq’s future–both on the part of various Iraqi factions and of the so-called international community. That’s worth bearing in mind is considering how best to deal with the IGC and with Ayatollah Sistani.

As for elections, there’s almost universal agreement among Iraqis that conducting a nationwide vote before July is a practical impossibility, given the absence of an agreed-on census, an electoral law, or adequate electoral machinery–as well as the mounting Baathist/jihadist insurgency. Insistence on elections in these circumstances is akin to demanding repeal of the laws of gravity.

At the same time, there’s nothing sacred about the particular mechanics spelled out in the November 15 agreement. There’s ample room for compromise on these essentially procedural issues, despite legitimate U.S. concerns that snap elections in decidedly unpromising circumstances might empower extremists of various stripes. A senior administration official quoted in the November 27 New York Times put it this way: “The nub of this is, how do we get to enough elections in enough places to satisfy the ayatollah’s insistence on elections. We should be able to do that.”

In fact, there’s now a belated scramble for a face-saving solution, as IGC members begin to acknowledge reality and Ayatollah Sistani begins issuing hints of flexibility. But the existing dynamic needs to be reversed. For it’s the CPA that’s doing all the heavy lifting, according to Tuesday’s Washington Post, “scrambling to negotiate a compromise with Iraq’s two main religious strains.” “The Americans are very nervous,” 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.