Coalition withdrawal symptoms

In its eagerness to usher in a new interim government, the coalition is disavowing political responsibility for Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The debate about Iraq’s new interim government, sworn in at one of Saddam’s former palaces in Baghdad on 1 June, has been less than gripping. Anti-war commentators claim the interim rulers are puppets, part of ‘Dick Cheney’s Neocon Puppet Show’ according to a cartoon by Andy Davey in the UK Guardian. From the other side, US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says, ‘These are not America’s puppets’. Some commentators fall somewhere in the middle. ‘They are not perfect, but they are not puppets either’, says one (1).

Many assume that America is imprinting itself on to postwar Iraq. There’s a widespread assumption that the coalition has a deep-seated desire to stay in Iraq – whether to secure oil reserves or satisfy imperial ambitions or spread democracy through the Middle East – and that the interim government is the means through which coalition forces will continue their domination. Certainly the interim lot, and their successors following the elections of January 2005, will remain reliant on America for patronage, financial backing and military support. But the most striking thing about recent events is the extent to which the coalition is seeking to wash its hands of the Iraqi venture.

Politically and emotionally, if not physically, the coalition has already left Iraq – and now it is concerned, not with consolidating its grip, but with saving face. The installation of interim rulers and the planned transfer of sovereignty on 30 June are exercises in damage limitation on the part of the coalition, rather than the products of imperial design.

According to media reports the announcement of a new Iraqi government was preceded by a day of ‘high drama and backroom deals’. Adnan Pachachi, the 81-year-old former foreign minister favoured by the Bush administration, turned down the post of president. Instead it was taken by Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, a businessman and prominent tribal figure, who oversaw the self-abolishment of the Iraqi Governing Council and the swearing in of the new interim government.

It is notable that both Bush and Blair sought to distance themselves politically from these events. ‘I had no role’, said Bush. ‘I mean, occasionally somebody said, “This person may be interested, or that person”, but I had no role in picking. Zero.’ (2) Blair also denied any political responsibility, instead claiming that the new government came about as a result of a truly international effort. ‘There is [a] very clear division between the new Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, the multinational forces and the United Nations, who are trying to assist Iraq towards stability and democracy, and the sort of terrorists and fanatics who are trying to stop it.’ (3)

The one outside force that Bush and Blair acknowledged as playing a role in setting up the new Iraqi government was the United Nations, that supposedly non-partisan, supranational and certainly not American institution. Blair said the next logical step following this ‘truly historic day for Iraq’ was for the UN security council to pass a resolution drafted by Britain and the USA, in order to give the new government full legitimacy (4). After disavowing any responsibility for the new government, Bush declared that it was the work of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s special envoy to Iraq. ‘Brahimi was the person who put together the group’, he said (5).

In the discussions about the new government, there is an attempt on the part of the coalition to create a distance between its physical presence in Iraq and any political responsibility for what happens there. This is in keeping with its conduct since the end of the war in May 2003. It has already outlawed the flying of American and British flags; it redesigned the new Iraqi currency after officials raised concerns that it looked too much like the American dollar.

The Coalition Provisional Authority insists that it isn’t an occupying force – it is headed by an administrator, Paul Bremer, who is guarded by private security guards rather than US soldiers, and describes itself as ‘the temporary governing body which has been designated by the UN as the lawful government of Iraq until such time as Iraq is politically and socially stable enough to assume its sovereignty’. The CPA website has a ‘Countdown to Sovereignty’ ticker, anticipating by the second the day when the mess that is postwar Iraq will be Iraqis’ permanent responsibility rather than the coalition’s temporary responsibility.

Coalition forces may be physically present in Iraq, but coalition leaders have effectively already absented themselves in any political sense. There are 135,000 American troops and 8,000 British troops in Iraq, and the military presence has proved fatal for many Iraqis. But coalition forces often appear to be there more in body than in spirit. They are not marching through the streets – many US forces guard the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad, a cordoned-off and massively fortified part of the city centre; US soldiers have largely left hostile cities such as Fallujah and Najaf; and when a recent poll asked Iraqis what they though of coalition forces, 77 per cent said they have never had an encounter with a coalition soldier (6).

The coalition has a ghostly presence in Iraq, floating above the mess that its war and occupation created. The setting up of an interim government and the assurances that the transfer of sovereignty will go ahead on 30 June, in preparation for elections in January 2005, are part of this process; they are attempts at damage-limitation, at taking a step back from the Iraqi mire. In welcoming the new interim government, the coalition is not plotting the domination of the Middle East so much as fantasising about the day when it might be able to leave its Iraqi mess behind.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Not perfect, but not puppets either, Mississippi Sun Herald, 2 June 2004

(2) Bombs welcome new Iraqi president, Guardian, 2 June 2004

(3) Bombs welcome new Iraqi president, Guardian, 2 June 2004

(4) Bombs welcome new Iraqi president, Guardian, 2 June 2004

(5) Bombs welcome new Iraqi president, Guardian, 2 June 2004

(6) See Another dodgy dossier, Brendan O’Neill, Guardian, 25 March 2004

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Topics Politics


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