While no one knows how or when the war in Iraq will end, one thing is certain: With the fall of the Baathist regime, the country could face a political vacuum.
President Saddam Hussein is now in more or less effective control of just over five per cent of Iraqi territory. His regime is in no position to fulfill the normal functions of a government.
Signs are that opinion is hardening in the Bush administration in favor of direct American rule for at least five years. Although the Pentagon is not keen, other parts of the administration, including the Sate Department and the National Security Council, favor the direct-rule option. Several leading American experts on the Middle East, some like Fouad Ajami and Walid Phares, also support the option as the best for the Iraqi people.
Their argument is that the U.S. has never remained in occupation of any country that it conquered for a long time and that, at the end of the occupation, left those countries more prosperous and more democratic. The examples they cite include the Philippines, which the U.S. captured from Spain, and, later, Germany and Japan after the Second World War. All in all the U.S. has militarily intervened in 66 countries during the past 100 years, and not tried to colonize any.
Also, the argument continues, the Iraqi opposition factions need time to get organized, learn to live and work together, and develop a culture of democracy, liberalism and human rights.
The direct-rule scenario, however, could be a recipe for disaster for all concerned.
To begin with it could split the Coalition.
Britain, Spain, Australia, and at least half a dozen other coalition members have made it clear they would not accept any long-term foreign military rule in Iraq. The maximum they might be prepared to stomach is 18 months.
Then it is unlikely that the American public will accept military rule in Iraq even for such a period. During several trips to the U.S. in recent months this writer has found no significant level of support for American military rule in Baghdad. An overwhelming majority of Americans support the toppling of President Saddam Hussein. But few wish to take over the government of Iraq.
Prolonged American military rule in Baghdad could also antagonize Iraq’s neighbors, especially Turkey and Iran. Both can cause nuisance and endanger Iraq’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty.
More importantly, there is no evidence that a majority of Iraqis will welcome American rule even for 18 months. An army of liberation could turn into an army of occupation almost instantly.
What is to be done?
The Coalition and the Iraqi opposition, some of which are now beginning to make their presence felt inside the country, must urgently come together to tackle the issue.
It is vital to set up an Iraqi Council of National Sovereignty as quickly as possible. Such a council would represent the perennity of the Iraqi state. It would prevent the disappearance of the Iraqi state, even for a brief period, and make sure that an Iraqi voice is present wherever and whenever it matters. The council would keep the national flag of Iraq flying by its presence in the United Nations, the Arab League, the OPEC, the Organization of the Islamic Countries, and the 80 or so other international organizations of which Iraq is a member.
The council would become an interlocutor for the U.S.-led Coalition even before the end of the war, to make sure that no long-term decisions concerning the fate of Iraq are taken without an Iraqi voice being heard.
It must be clear right from the start that the council’s function is essentially symbolic, juridical and psychological.
It will not act as a normal government; that has to be chosen and shaped by the Iraqi people after a period of careful preparation.
It is, therefore, important that the council be composed of figures capable of standing above partisan divisions. These must be people with no partisan political ambitions, at least at this stage of the game.
Ideally, the council could consist of seven to nine people, including at least three women. It must reflect both the rich diversity of Iraq and its unshakable unity. Shiite and Sunni Muslims, ethnic Kurds, and, perhaps, Turcomans and Chaldaeo-Assyrians, could have representatives on the council, roughly expressing the numerical strength of their respective communities.
The council would then be recognized not only by the U.S.-led coalition but also by the United Nations, as the sole legitimate representative of the Iraqi state. It would then be able to take a number of urgently necessary steps. It would first have to put the presence of the U.S.-led Coalition forces within an agreed legal framework. The coalition would have to sign accords regulating its presence and stipulating that it would withdraw the moment a new Iraqi government makes such a demand.
The council would also make it clear that any long-term accords entered into on behalf of Iraq and in the absence of an effective government would be null and void. This is important to keep off the predatory gangs that are hovering around Iraq in the hope of snatching juicy contracts in the postwar confusion.
U.S. planners were realistic enough to accept a similar scenario in Afghanistan. The government that emerged in Kabul is not one hundred percent “American.” But it is precisely for that reason that the majority of the Afghans have had little difficulty living with it. The U.S. should accept a similar outcome in Iraq. It is human nature to resent the big power that intervenes in your affairs, even if it is to save you from the clutches of a sanguinary tyrant. (This is why there is more anti-Americanism in France, for example, which was liberated by the U.S., than in Finland that was not.)
All this does not mean that the U.S. should forget about Iraq the moment the present regime collapses. By intervening in Iraqi affairs, the U.S., and its allies, have assumed an abiding moral and political responsibility. They are thus obliged to stand by the side of Iraq for a long time, maybe years, to help it rebuild, develop new institutions, and join the global mainstream. That role is best performed by the U.S. as Iraq’s friend and partner, not as its ruler and master.
— Amir Taheri, Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam, is based in London. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.