Iraq’s arbitrary administration

The problem with building an interim government.

Josie Appleton

Topics World

Attempts to construct an interim Iraqi authority have been dogged with fractious arguments between ethnic, religious and political groups. A first meeting of Iraqi representatives on 15 April was boycotted by one of the main factions, and managed to agree only a vague 13-point statement of principles – and to meet to discuss the issue again in 10 days’ time.

This chaos is down to two main factors: the political vacuum in Iraq; and the political vacuum in the American administration.

Iraqi opposition groups played no part in bringing about the fall of Saddam’s regime. There was no liberation movement waiting to take the reins as the regime crumbled. Instead, the post-war landscape has been left devoid of significant political organisations.

The Ba’ath party had relentlessly pursued rival political groups for decades, and extended its rule into every part of Iraqi society. Severely weakened after the 1991 Gulf War, the Ba’ath party was reduced to being the fragile glue that held Iraq together. That it hung on for the 1990s is testimony only to the weakness of any political opposition.

Most of the Iraqi political groups now coming out of the woodwork have tiny numbers of members. The Iraqi Communist Party has recently set up office again in Baghdad, two decades after it was turned upon by Saddam. The communists were one of the main political forces after the establishment of the Iraqi republic in 1958, and had two seats in the Ba’athist government between 1973 to 1979 – but today the party is merely an empty shell. Saddam hanged 34 leading members in the late 1970s, and 70,000 members were arrested, left the party, or went into exile (1). It is difficult to see how the party could rebuild a membership now, given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the international left in the intervening period.

The Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq are all anti-Saddam groups now being suggested to form part of an interim Iraqi administration. But all are based as much upon foreign support as they are any indigenous Iraqi base.

The Iraqi National Congress, led by long-term exile Ahmed Chalabi, was one of the US favourites to play a leading role. This was formed in 1991 after a meeting between Chalabi, a wealthy Shi’ite businessman, and White House officials. The aim was to form a coalition of opposition groups to attempt a coup against Saddam – and Chalabi poured some of his millions into launching an offensive in 1995. Although the Iraqi army did not fight, the coup attempt had to be called off after Kurdish and CIA allies jumped ship, and it ran out of finances (2). Today, as former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins noted, Chalabi ‘has more support on Capitol Hill than in all Iraq’ (3).

The Iraqi National Accord was set up in 1990 by Shi’ite Ayad Alawi, and was financed by the Saudis to attempt an anti-Saddam coup. This 1000-strong group is composed mainly of military defectors from Saddam’s regime, and has little mass base. And the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution was based in and supported by Tehran – this is a Shi’ite body founded during the Iraq-Iran war, and composed of some 7000 to 15,000 guerrilla fighters. The council has a more significant base than the other two opposition groups, but still has little claim to representing Iraqi opinion (4).

The Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have at least established themselves in the Kurdish autonomous regions of the north, which they have been administering since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. But these groups have little support outside of the north – and indeed, many of their members would rather that the Kurdish region were not part of Iraq at all. The relationship between the two has been fractious – by September 1995, PUK-KDP violence had claimed 3000 lives, and in 1996 the head of the KDP appealed to Saddam to assist him to regain the a regional capital from the PUK (5).

In the absence of established political organisations, the Iraqi political stage is being flooded with chancers and militias. Many of these are groups formed in response to the political and security vacuum in cities, and are more out for themselves than representing a section of the Iraqi people. One of the only institutions with any kind of base in Iraqi society is the mosque – which is partly why the religious leadership have been thrust to the forefront in recent weeks.

In this context, choosing representatives for the interim authority becomes a somewhat arbitrary business. It is a matter of picking and choosing people who claim to have ‘standing’, or who seem to be from a range of different religious and ethnic groups.

But this Iraqi political vacuum has been worsened by the dithering of the US leadership. After Saddam fell, the US seemed to have few ideas about what might replace him – as one newspaper reported, they seemed ‘taken by surprise’ (6). As looting erupted and Iraq descended into chaos, the US state department and the Pentagon were entrenched in arguments about when and where a meeting to help organise an interim authority might occur – and who might attend it. The Pentagon championed Chalabi as a key figure, but he was opposed by the state department and the CIA.

When the meeting did eventually occur, in Nasiriya on 15 April, the USA billed the encounter as one of ‘facilitating conversations among the Iraqis’ (7). ‘It’s an opportunity for the US, for coalition officials to meet with free Iraqis from inside and outside Iraq, to discuss their vision of the future, to start working with local administrations and talk about the vision of the future’, said one US representative (8). After the meeting, Jim Wilkinson, spokesman at US central command described the meeting an ‘unscripted, free-flowing forum of ideas’ to get Iraqis talking about their desires for the future – and merely the first in a series of much larger meetings across Iraq (9).

Whether a free-flowing forum of ideas was the best response to a country unravelling into anarchy is debatable. The USA claims not to have any particular agenda of its own in Iraq. Concerned not to appear as conquerors or colonialists, the US ends up claiming a complete disinterest in the shape of any future Iraqi administration.

This professed disinterest is a result of the lack of clarity that has defined the war against Iraq from the very beginning – from the first anti-Saddam musings, we have seen confused justifications and shifting war aims. Having not really known how (or why) to make the war, the coalition has similar difficulties knowing how to make the peace.

But although the USA is not imposing colonial control over Iraq, nor is it leaving Iraqis to govern themselves. Instead, it is positioning itself as a peacekeeper, as the mediator who juggles and balances divergent Iraqi factions – who facilitates conversations that otherwise might get out of hand.

The Nasiriya meeting produced few concrete results. It was boycotted by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, and Shi’ites staged anti-US marches in a nearby town. And the list of US-picked list of invitees seemed to be too contentious to be released at the time – US secretary of state Colin Powell described it obliquely as a ‘fairly large gathering of individuals’ who represent ‘the views of those who have been struggling outside as well as those who are now free inside’ Iraq (10).

The 13-point statement was vague, saying that a future Iraq should be ‘democratic’, based on the ‘rule of law’; that political violence should be rejected and that security and basic services should be restored (11).

One of the few principles the USA seems to hold to is to prevent the ascendancy of any one group in particular, and to open the political process to as many new actors as possible – to build a ‘broad-based’ or ‘multiethnic’ regime.

As temporary head of Iraq US General Garner said: ‘Our desire is that the new government of Iraq represent all Iraqi people – Kurdish people, Shiites, Shias, Turkomans, Assyrians, Chaldeans…all people. It will be a mosaic of the cultures and religions and ethnicity of Iraq’ (12). One point from the Nasiriya meeting statement was: ‘Iraq must be built on respect for diversity including respect for the role of women’. Another point was that ‘There should be an open dialogue with all national political groups to bring them into the process’.

Any group that looks like it might be gaining the upper hand is likely to be held back, and told to respect diversity and be open to other points of view. Given that no one group can claim to represent the wishes of the people of Iraq, this might seem sensible. But the likely effect of this approach is to neutralise any emerging political force seeking to establish or assert itself – and so perpetuate the long-term fragmentation of Iraqi political life. It prevents conflict from working out to a conclusion, such as an agreed balance of power between dominant groups, or the victory of one particular group – instead artificially freezing the coexistence of many (often weak and unrepresentative) interests.

This state of affairs hands authority to the Western powers who claim the mantel of balancing these diverse groups and voices. A perpetuation of fragmentation in Iraqi political life re-creates the need for a mediator to reconcile the different factions. Iraqis, it seems, are to be given a ‘voice’ and ‘respect’ – rather than freedom to exercise political power.

Afghanistan has often been hailed as a success – as a model example of replacing a repressive regime with a diverse and broad-based government. But Hamid Karzai’s government has been unable to establish itself much outside the capital city. While on paper, Afghanistan is run by a balanced multiethnic, multiregional administration, in practise this has sat in Kabul while different warlords and sectional interests fight it out in the countryside.

If attempts to reconstruct a government continue in the current vein, Iraq – a previously well-developed society with a history of established state institutions – might well be heading in the same direction.

Read on:

There is freedom – and there is ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, by Josie Appleton

Shia confusion, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Religion and politics resurface as the new voices of Iraqi freedom, Guardian, 22 April 2003

(2) The United States and the Iraqi National Congress, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, April 2001

(3) Observer, 13 April 2003

(4) See Main opposition groups to Saddam Hussein, CNN; and US struggles to rally a fractured opposition, Observer, 29 September 2003

(5) See Main opposition groups to Saddam Hussein, CNN; and US struggles to rally a fractured opposition, Observer, 29 September 2003

(6) Guardian, 11 April 2003

(7) The Economist, 19 April 2003

(8) Guardian, 11 April 2003

(9) linkable text, Guardian, 15 April 2003

(10) Iraqi leaders hold first meeting on nation’s future, CNN, 15 April 2003

(11) U.S. statement after Iraqi opposition meeting, CNN, 15 April 2003

(12) The Times, 23 April 2003

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Topics World


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