Can Iraq’s newly installed interim Governing Council cut it? Will its 25 leaders — drawn from all reasonably open, non-autocratic segments of the society — really be up to the task of setting the stage for a democratic Iraq; or will they persist in fighting old battles and settling old scores? Can the IGC, in short, frame the future for the tumultuous society left behind by the late unlamented Saddam Hussein? Beirut’s mass-circulation daily newspaper As Safir put the question almost poetically: “Is a new Iraq seeing the light?”
Well, yes and no. It is the dawn of a new day in the land that is the cradle of Western civilization. Though Saddam had ancient Babylon and the Garden of Eden destroyed, decades of despotism have ended, and the first opportunity for a peaceful existence in most Iraqis’ lifetimes lies ahead.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the men and women comprising the interim Council have the will and the commitment to their nation to do the improbable: set the stage for a participative democracy in a land that, for centuries, has known nothing but autocracy and despotism.
It is an enormous task, and first indications are mixed. The Governing Council’s initial act was to proclaim the day Baghdad was liberated, April 9, a national holiday. Since the holiday was intended to replace various Saddam-Baathist days-off and to mark the end of Baathist rule, Coalition observers were surprised by the neutral to negative reaction its proclamation received.
Soon afterward, IGC appointed three of its members to present the new government’s credentials to the United Nations — and the tension turned up. Adnan Pachachi, respected, long-exiled pre-Saddam foreign minister; Ahmad Chalabi, Westernized, controversial, and also returned exile; Aqilah al-Hashimi, leading woman in the foreign ministry and former deputy of Tariq Aziz, went to New York and all but argued their differences in public. Who would speak to the U.N. for the IGC? Who, to the press? Finally it was agreed that Pachachi would speak to the diplomats; the camera-conscious Chalabi would be the press spokesman.
Whatever the explanation, it was an unsettling scene, and friends of a democratic Iraq can only hope the argy-bargy was a function of the birthing of a nation. There will be more such pains to come, from the widely disparate, and in many cases self-seeking, Council members.
There can be no doubt that the formation of the Governing Council was a timely and important step. It is also true — and not surprising — that the basis for both the Council’s formation and its operating brief fell short of the aspirations and ambitions of the Iraqi people. Veterans of the German and Japanese occupations following World War II can recall discontent with the pace at which those societies regained their autonomy. As one puts it: “It’s only natural to want to run your own life and community. The challenge for us was to gauge when to loosen the occupying grip, in which sectors and in what stages.”
Supporters of Hussein’s ousted Baath regime have created an undercurrent of doubt, accusing the IGC of being a mere rubber stamp for the U.S, occupation forces. Under this unsubstantiated and unprovable cloud, picked up by left-leaning, anti-American media, the Council now faces the daunting challenge of preparing Iraqi institutions — and the society generally — for the transfer of power from Coalition forces to the Iraqi people, peacefully, democratically, and within a constitutional framework.
Widely respected Council member Adnan Pachachi said he did not expect American civilian administrator Ambassador L. Paul Bremer to use the veto power he has retained on IGC decisions. Although final authority remains in Bremer’s hands, the 80-year-old Pachachi (who served as foreign minister in pre-Saddam Iraq) stressed that Council members had received assurances that their deliberations and decisions would be respected, with disagreements being settled through dialogue and negotiation, not veto threats.
Selected by the United States following lengthy consultation with Iraq’s multiple political, religious, and ethnic groups, the IGC reflects the composition of today’s Iraq and has broad authority to reorganize governance throughout the land. The Governing Council has the responsibility to appoint ministers, judges, and police chiefs and to oversee new school curricula, as well as laying the groundwork for the all-important Constitutional Convention.
Arab, Muslim, and European leaders welcomed the newly formed Council, viewing it as positive recognition of the beginning of a new, participative political order in Iraq — most especially involving the long-neglected Shiites and Kurds. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Organization of Islamic Conference closely followed the United Nations, France, Russia, and Japan in welcoming the transitional Governing Council as the first executive authority to be set in place in post-Saddam Iraq. All regarded the Council’s inauguration as a significant and fundamental move to restore stability to Iraq. Even Iran welcomed the “formation of an Iraqi ruling council comprising Iraqi representatives,” though it rejected the U.S. veto on Council decisions.
But Syria has reacted with cool reserve to news of the IGC’s formation, expressing concern about Iraq’s “uncertain future.” Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam warned against the “partitioning and dismemberment” of the country, which he claimed would affect Iraq’s neighbors, adding that the restoration of peace in Iraq should have been a purely Arab endeavor. This wildly unrealistic suggestion clearly reflected the fears of the Baath regime in Damascus that uprooting the Baath regime in Baghdad might be seen as a popular solution to Syria’s own continuing saga of repression.
The U.S. played a decisive role in encouraging foreign counterparts to welcome and recognize the Governing Council. Mounting armed resistance against U.S. forces convinced Washington of the need to both limit direct rule of Iraq and grant Iraqis more self-rule, more quickly than originally planned. The move was seen as a middle way between implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 (which considered Iraq an occupied country) and safeguarding America’s strategic interests (the driving force for toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime).
The failure to discover weapons of mass destruction until now was, in fact, a significant factor that moved Washington to support a more independent Iraqi administration than originally intended. Establishing the IGC to undertake their tough transitional tasks proactively is one of several moves meant to diminish fears, build confidence, and loosen tongues among leadership cadres, ideally creating a greater willingness to provide information about the elusive biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons and facilities.
The Governing Council is the first decisive step in the tortuous journey that must be made before IGC and Coalition members can claim to have succeeded in uprooting the Baathist dictatorship and installing a legitimate, democratic government approved by all Iraqis — one that is capable of safeguarding Iraq’s independence, unity, and national sovereignty, as well as achieving economic prosperity.
A key challenge facing the IGC is the lack of a clear-cut mission statement and description of its powers. The Council’s promise to restore security and revive the economy, while useful as broad statement of objectives, nevertheless needs much more detailed strategic definition. The freedom allowed by Ambassador Bremer for the IGC to set these strategies is a double-edged sword. It provides great freedom of decision in setting recovery priorities as many Iraqis and other Arabs have demanded; but it also gives the naysayers the chance to accuse Washington of not having prepared sufficiently for the postwar recovery, resulting in the slow restarting of civilian services and the all-important oil sector.
The U.S.-led Coalition vowed to restore order and security but still have not succeeded, three months after Baghdad’s fall. Baghdad’s streets — and those of most other cities — are not safe to walk at night, and are even risky by day. Despite the large number of U.S. troops, security in the capital remains so tenuous that the first Governing Council meeting was marred by two separate attacks that targeted U.S. forces, killing one soldier and wounding many others.
The Council is implicitly charged with securing public services, including security, order, water, electricity, and schools, all essential in restoring normal life. It will also have to revive an economy that has left Iraqis among the poorest peoples in Arabia, despite the country’s enormous natural wealth. The Governing Council, in brief, must prove that it can be the effective nucleus around which to consolidate national unity.
Whatever the balance of responsibility between Coalition administrators and the Council, the Iraqi people will ultimately hold the IGC accountable for the hugely contentious and complex tasks of re-establishing and overseeing government services until a legitimate government is elected — and for drafting a new Iraqi constitution in the coming two years. In fact, observers believe some leaders turned down the offer to serve on the IGC specifically in order to not be blamed when the going gets tough, as it surely will. As one commented about two leaders whose absence was a surprise: “They have obviously chosen to preserve their freedom to criticize… it’s so much easier than actually dealing with the problems.”
For the majority of Iraqi citizens, the council’s initial focus should be on restoring, reinvigorating, and extending long-neglected public services as yet uncompleted by the Coalition. Baghdad suffers from periodic brownouts and the country as a whole from antiquated telecommunications. Hundreds of schools have been badly damaged, and texts are replete with baathetic, fawning praise for a crude ideology led by a cruel despot. The infrastructure decay in many cases is not a result of war so much as it reflects decades of neglect by the profligate Saddam regime.
Though it fell short of the aspirations and ambitions of many Iraqis, the Governing Council’s formation was without question a step on the right direction. Beirut’s As Safir newspaper summarized the situation: “The Council has yet to earn its certificate in nationalism, since it had the honor to represent the Iraqi people under occupation. Its performance will either speed up the end of occupation or fuel the rise of popular resistance against the occupiers.”
— Hussain Hindawi is an Iraqi writer and journalist who has lived in exile for more than three decades, in Beirut, Paris and London. He established the Arabic Service for United Press International in 1995 and has served as editor-in-chief since its inception. John R. Thomson is an American business, diplomacy, and journalism veteran. This was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.