Iraq's New Government: Is the U.S. Stacking the Deck?

Peter C. Valenti, contributing editor, June 22, 2004

Iyad Alawi meets with other Iraqi political leaders on June 2, 2003.  (Photo: Leila Gorchev/AFP-Getty Images)

Despite the unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution on June 8 that recognized the restoration of sovereignty to Iraq concurrent with the slated end of the United States occupation on June 30, most Arabs are skeptical of the nature of both this future sovereignty and the Iraqi government that will lead it. As much of the press in the US mainly focused on one Iraqi personality and his fall from grace, Ahmad Chalabi, the Arab press spent considerable time reviewing the credentials of the major politicians in the new government as well as the processes that brought them into power. Furthermore, as the US maintains its military operations in the country, and potentially will continue to do so after June 30, many Arabs question the very premise of the democratization of Iraq. A familiar lament is given by Rashid Ahmad al-Thani in his column in Bahrain’s Akhbar al-Khaleej on May 28 “Is democracy that which comes through the likes of [US Lt. General] Ricardo Sanchez , who is able to implement it through the sieges of cities like Faluja, Najaf, Kufa and Karbala, and desecrating the holy mausoleums in them, or by destroying homes and killing citizens..?”

Even though the UN is widely regarded as a legitimate and legitimizing entity, widespread Arab opinion does not believe that the international organization has had much clout in the decision-making in Iraq. The UN’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is respected but generally perceived as being limited by the heavy-handed interference of US Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority. Regardless of Brahimi’s presence in Iraq, the majority of Arab writers argue that US inclusion of the UN is not a sign of multilateral sentiment, but simply as a kind of political “cover.” In his June 2 op-ed in the pan-Arab al-Hayat, Hasan Nafi‘ah articulated the common view that the Bush administration is utilizing the UN as a change in tactics but no such change has occurred in the overall strategy.

It is no surprise then that UN-approved election of Dr. Iyad Alawi as the upcoming interim prime minister was not well received. It seemed obvious to writers like Muhammad Kharroub that this is a case of the US simply reshuffling the deck. Writing in Jordan’s al-Ra’i on June 1, he argued “the ‘surprise’ [of Alawi’s selection] was well-rehearsed as Bremer and his supporters in the Governing Council played their game professionally and effected the exclusion of the UN envoy [Brahimi] to such an extent that he had no option other than returning to the role of silent observer…” Nawwaf Abu al-Hayja’ was equally negative in Jordan’s Addustour on June 2 stating that the essential problem in relying on the UN is that the US still plays a dominant role in the Security Council. Any attempt to limit the US occupation or set a time schedule against the wishes of the US, will only surely invite a US veto.

Writing on June 6 in the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, Bashir Musa Nafi emphasized Alawi’s credibility problems, which are similar to those of the now disgraced Ahmad Chalabi. Nafi wrote, “The long-term and strong relations of Dr. Alawi with the US and its intelligence agencies have come to the point of being generally known, and until the time of the writing of this article, Alawi has not refuted or denied this. And in a country which the US had invaded, destroying its houses, institutions and state, and continues to impose a military occupation on it, and faces a large-scale nationalist resistance [against it], the background and reputation of Alawi doesn’t inspire confidence nor is it founded on the consensus or the acceptance of nationalists.” Describing the efforts made by Alawi and his party the Iraqi National Accord to gain some kind of popular base, Nafi ended on an acerbic note “[Alawi is] a personality with no weight in the Iraqi street.”

Iraqi writer Ali al-Jabiri argued in his June 9 op-ed in al-Ra’i that the new government is further undermining its own legitimacy by seeming to be in favor of the occupation. Once again underscoring the new Iraqi leaders’ lack of deep affinity with the Iraqi populace, al-Jabiri claimed they don’t understand that they appear to be foisted on Iraq by an illegitimate occupation. Al-Jabiri wrote “the immediate response to the announcement of the formation of the new government was when the Green Zone rose up in a number of attacks by the resistance. And that is a clear indication and message to the new government that it isn’t immune to attacks by the resistance as long as it announces a desire for the occupation forces to remain in the country, which some of the people in the new government had described as the forces that ‘liberated’ Iraq.”

Arab critics are quick to suggest that the new post-June 30 Iraqi government is no more than a façade from behind which the US will continue to rule. Nafi put it succinctly: “No independence will seem [to be] real independence without a legitimate government.” In a related manner, Abd al-Hadi Husayn al-Tamimi voiced a common concern in his May 28 column in Saudi Arabia’s progressive al-Watan, noting that those Iraqis who are emerging as the post-June 30 leaders are being chosen from the current crop of “individuals who returned to Iraq with the occupying American and British tanks…coming from outside of Iraq, many of them carrying foreign citizenship, the majority of these being American and British. For this reason, they have been dubbed ‘the imports.’”

Nearly sarcastic, Walid Abi Murshid bemoaned in his June 7 op-ed in Saudi Arabia’s Asharq al-Awsat “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the formation of the new government in Baghdad is the beginning of the public recantation by the US as an act of repentance, as the strong showing of former Baathists in [the new government], such as Minister of Defense Hazim Sha‘lan, Minister of Higher Education Tahir al-Bakaa’, Minister of Provincial Affairs Wa’il Abd al-Latif, Minister of the Interior Falah al-Naqib and Minister of Trade Muhammad al-Jabouri, points to and prepares for the willingness of the occupation authority to recognize the ‘merits’ of revising [past] mistakes.” In other words, Murshid argued, “it seems that the most prominent achievement of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Iraq, until now, has been to liberate the Baath Party from Saddam Hussein more than Iraq itself was liberated from Saddam Hussein.”

It is obvious that most Arabs express deep suspicions about Washington’s claims that elections for the new government couldn’t be held, which seemed to sharply contradict with the Bush administration’s supposed goals of democratizing Iraq. However, as Musa Dawud made clear in Akhbar Al-Khaleej on May 28, in light of Bush’s credibility problems, hawkish policies and widespread Arab disgust over Abu Ghraib, “Bush knows full well that any free elections in Iraq would be a disaster for the US because they would bring into office a government of greater enmity to the US.”

As in the US, the Arab public is debating the ramifications that Iraq will have on Bush’s reelection. Another facet to Arab distrust of US intentions is the perception that Bush simply wishes to stall for more time until the November presidential elections. Abd al-Hadi Husayn al-Tamimi articulated this in his May 28 column al-Watan, arguing “the US and the US-appointed members of the GC rejected holding any [Iraqi] elections on the pretense of lack of time and absence of security. [However] the reason for the rejection was that Washington wants its [GC] people to remain in their ruling chairs in order to continue the implementation of American objectives under occupation until the [Bush] administration overcomes the difficulties of the presidential elections.”

It is not only crucial to have some stability in Iraq in order to diminish the negative impact of US soldiers’ deaths during an election year, but also a successful post-June 30 Iraq would seemingly vindicate the Bush administration’s ideological positions, which are a strong component of his reelection campaign. For this reason, the June 1 editorial of Lebanon’s al-Anwar stated “Bush’s success or failure in winning a second term as president—and this is the implicit and fundamental goal of the war—is a different problem entirely, which by definition will be decided by only two groups: the American people on one hand and the Iraqi people on the other.”

Finally, while many in the US prognosticate the effect the post-June 30 hand off will have on the November presidential elections, most Arabs contextualize it quite differently. The crucial point is that July 1 will be a transition to authority but not sovereignty. The questionable legitimacy of the upcoming interim Iraqi government, which will be composed of many officials currently in the GC, some of whom are seen as blatant US cronies, signals to Arabs that this will only engender more national resistance and not less. Furthermore, many Arab writers agree that even if John Kerry were elected, US troops would still not be withdrawn for at least many months, even though it is obvious to Arab observers that the US military is the main symbol of occupation and thus instigator of violence.

The most important and yet undeterminable variable in the post-June 30 Iraq is violence. Writing in Kuwait’s political daily Al Seyassah on May 28, Iraq writer Mustafa al-Qurra Daghi emphasized his fears for Iraq’s future due to the current security nightmare, which has attracted radical elements into the country, whether from Iran or al-Qaeda. Daghi lamented the long-term effects of the ideologies “imported from here and there” that have taken root in Iraqi streets through fear, intimidation and despair and led to new militant groups taking shape.

Thus security, or lack thereof, will also affect the legitimacy of the future transition government of Iraq. In a manner reminiscent to an Escher knot, Ahmad al-Dawas described the situation on June 1 in Asharq al-Awsat. Given the fact that Iraqis will not accept the new post-June 30 government as legitimate due to its “made in the USA” stamp, violence will continue and the new government will be unable to effectively wield the Iraqi military and security services immediately. For that reason, it will be unable to request the US military to leave Iraq. The continued presence of the US military will incite more violence, yet its absence would spell the ruin of security. Regarding controversies over the US military’s freedom of action, Ziyad Sulayman wrote in Azzaman on June 1 “we had hoped that the law included the CPA and its armed forces under [the new constitution] unambiguously.” Sulayman inferred that evidence from Abu Ghraib seems to indicate this is not the case.

Finally, while it may come as a surprise to many people in the US, the Arab press did not dedicate large amounts of space to the downfall of Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi and his clique of returnee exiles have long been vilified in the Arab world and he was never considered a potential political contender. While his credentials as an anti-Saddamite are not questioned, his ability and credentials to be among the new Iraqi leadership have long been dismissed. Thus Chalabi’s “fall” has only been from the good graces of the White House, as he never held any serious legitimacy or clout among the Iraqi public.

Salim Nassar invoked the better days, when Chalabi sat behind Laura Bush during the president’s State of the Union address in January and was nicknamed the “golden child” in Washingtonian circles. However, as the truth emerges now, Nassar concluded in al-Hayat on May 29, it seems “Chalabi was a horse [running] for Iran in the race to liberate Iraq, and certainly not the Americans’ horse.” Nassar wrote these words just days before the American public learned the news that Chalabi had leaked to Iranian intelligence that the US had cracked Iran’s communications code.

Assam Nu‘man made an interesting point in his June 9 column in al-Quds al-Arabi. Nu‘man suggested that Chalabi realized and took advantage of the shared desire of both the US and Iran to rid themselves of Saddam. As a client of two states, Chalabi could fulfill both their geostrategic interests and endear himself in the process, in effect killing two birds with one stone. Yet with the discovery of Chalabi’s intrigues, US fears about an increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, which perhaps is fueling greater Shiite militancy, means that Chalabi’s transgression is deemed very dangerous to US interests.

Writing on May 27 in the Palestinian al-Quds, Muhammad Shakir Abdullah described Chalabi as a kind of US-crafted political Frankenstein. Regardless of whether the US actually intended of making Chalabi prime minister, “the problem is” Abdullah concluded, “that [Chalabi] deluded himself into thinking he was really a leader. For this reason, he oversteps the rules of the game.” On the other hand, in the May 25 edition of the same newspaper, Ahmad Amrabi argued the US-Chalabi split was based more on politics than personality. The straw that broke Chalabi’s back was when “the American occupation authorities finally began—due to the feverish escalation [of violence] so close to the June 30 handoff—to backtrack and make an alliance with the Baathists, who are the grimmest enemies of Chalabi and his clique in the GC. Thus we should be able to understand the mindset of the majority of the Shiite and Kurdish members of the GC [who were] afraid and troubled by the extension of American bridges to the Baathists.” With these kinds of tensions as a backdrop, Salim Nassar added that any of the subsequent activities that Chalabi engaged in, such as trying to derail the UN mediation, which was desperately needed by the US, caused major figures in the CPA and Washington to finally disavow Chalabi.

Copyright © 1997-2018 All Rights Reserved. - - Privacy Notice - Front Page