Politics & Policy

Vacancy

The Iraq embassy in Washington is a symptom of many Allawi problems.

Iraq’s embassy in Washington is a pretty quiet place these days. It has been more than a year since the Iraqi Governing Council appointed human-rights activist Rend Rahim Francke as its representative to the United States. Rahim handled her job well, pleading the Iraqi cause at universities, think tanks, on television, and in Congress and the Oval Office.

But, a year after her appointment, the embassy is quiet. Its skeleton staff seldom answers the phone or returns calls. While Iraqi embassies in Tehran, Damascus, and Paris issue visas, the Iraqi mission in Washington does not. The status of Rend Rahim is uncertain. When she spoke at the American Enterprise Institute on October 14, 2004, she asked to be identified as “former ambassador-designate of Iraq to the United States.” Three weeks earlier, Al Kamen, who writes the “In the Loop” column at the Washington Post, reported that the “word is that the new ambassador to Washington is to be Kanan Makiya…. The feeling is that Makiya will give the Iraqis a more high-profile presence.” But Makiya never got his appointment. Iraqi interim government officials explained that Ayad Allawi simply reneged on his pledge to announce Makiya’s appointment at his press conference with President Bush.

Why does Allawi leave the embassy vacant? His failure to appoint an ambassador is symptomatic of his failings as a leader. While some U.S. National Security Council officials privately describe Allawi as Iraq’s equivalent of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the reality is far different. In half year since the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded, Allawi has not only failed to build a constituency, but has squandered what little support he had.

Allawi’s problems have been multifold. Iraqi Shia juxtapose his April 2004 calls for restraint in Fallujah, a predominantly Sunni town, with his enthusiasm to pursue an assault against Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, home to Shia Islam’s holiest shrine. Any support Allawi enjoyed among Sunnis evaporated when, last month, he “ordered” American troops into Fallujah. Arab liberals distrust the prime minister both for his Baathist past and for his embrace of their former tormenters. Reconciliation is one thing, but empowerment of monstrous arms of Saddam’s tyranny quite another. In both Sulaymani and Erbil, Kurdish political discussion revolved more about the October 2004’s internal Patriotic Union of Kurdistan putsch which has marginalized its leader, Jalal Talabani. To the Kurds, Allawi’s political survival is irrelevant.

Allawi has also lost the support of Iraq’s secular middle class both because his promise to restore security remains unfulfilled and because of concerns over his business practices. In July 2003, Allawi lost his top five deputies after they accused him of siphoning off party funds. While a member of the Governing Council, Allawi not only appointed his brother-in-law Nouri Badran to be interior minister, but also raised eyebrows with an undignified defense of Badran after the interior-ministry currency-speculation scandal. Accusations about Allawi’s corruption and abuse of power abound. According to a high-level official currently serving in Iraq’s interim government, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte intervened early in Allawi’s tenure to prevent the prime minister’s takeover of Iraq’s independent media commission. Iraq Special Tribunal Administrator Salem Chalabi leveled similar charges against Allawi with regard to political interference in preparations for Saddam’s trial. That the unified election list endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani included not only Shia, but also Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and Yezidi is a testament to the breadth of Iraqi reaction against their interim leader.

The only constituencies which remain solidly pro-Allawi are the White House, Foggy Bottom, and Langley. Because Allawi’s support lies not in Baghdad but in Washington, some Iraqis suggest that the interim prime minister is hesitant to appoint any intermediary who might dilute his access. Perhaps this is a shrewd political move on Allawi’s part, but it is also a selfish one–it slights the thousands of American soldiers who have sacrificed for Iraq, as well as the American taxpayers who have subsidized Iraq’s liberation. Then again, Allawi’s decision to leave the post vacant does have one advantage: It gives the interim prime minister a retirement option after the January 30 elections.

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of Middle East Quarterly. He returned from Iraq last month.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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