Edition 26 Volume 2 - July 08, 2024

The new Iraqi government

Is it really new? Is it really a government? - by  Jaafar Altaie

The new government has to contend with the negative policies and mistakes made by the CPA.

Iraqis give questionable government a chance - a conversation with  Abbas Mehdi

The presence of 140,000 US soldiers protecting the government calls into question not only its credibility but also its effectiveness.

The honeymoon will not last - by  Michael Rubin

The last battle, the one for a representative, democratic government, has yet to be decided.

Temporary steps on road to democracy? - by  Sadegh Zibakalam

Temporary measures to establish order and stability before implementing democracy tend to last forever.

Is it really new? Is it really a government?
by Jaafar Altaie

Is it really new? “The student has been detained and the teacher has taken over,” remarks the owner of one of Baghdad’s cafes as he prepares a typical Thursday morning breakfast while watching a news report on the forthcoming trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The student in this case is Saddam, and the teacher is America. This saying is a favorite among Baghdad residents when it comes to describing the current state of post-war Iraq.

The new Iraqi government has been heavily influenced by external powers; the limits of its authority and its future agenda are ambiguously defined. The concept of a government comprised of a president, vice president, and prime minister is a classic republican model commonly recognized worldwide. In this regard, there is nothing new about the present government.

What is new in the present government, however, is the caliber of some of its senior leaders. The Iraqi prime minister is a good example. Not only does Ayad Allawi enjoy popular support from ordinary Iraqis, but he also possesses a keen intellect with a thorough grasp of how to reconcile Iraqi and western interests. All signs indicate that this is the right man for the job; many Iraqis believe that this is one of the most capable politicians in Iraq’s modern history. The key question, however, is to what extent he will be allowed to apply his immense capabilities and to what extent he will become a victim of poor planning and conflicting interests among the stakeholders in Iraq’s government.

In addition to having some senior members of unprecedented caliber, the new government is placing a greater emphasis on human rights and women’s rights, at least as far as its ministerial structures are concerned. Whether this is a rhetorical or genuine commitment remains to be seen. What may also be new is the prospect that this government may be successful in solving Iraq’s social, economic, and political problems and paving the way for a freely elected government to assume a legitimate role in Iraq’s governance.

Its failure to do so would render the government yet another ineffective administration that took power thanks to coercive military influence and maintains power thanks to coercive self-preservation, supported by an extensive state apparatus. For many Iraqis this looks like the same old Iraqi government, except that it has a more sophisticated state apparatus and assured territorial protection due to the support of the world’s most powerful armies and security services.

Ultimately, whether this is really a new government or not depends on what actions it takes and how effective it is in solving Iraq’s problems. Now that the government has taken power, it will prove whether this is just a government concerned with self-preservation and political rhetoric or whether this is an administration capable of tackling huge problems, most notably in the areas of security, infrastructure, and investments.

The challenges are not new, nor would be the prospect of failure. The possibility of success, however, would be an unprecedented achievement in Iraq and the region. Before considering such an ambitious possibility, however, it is useful to ponder the question of whether the present Iraqi administration can even be referred to as a government, in terms of its real status and authority among ordinary Iraqis and the international community.

Is it really a government? It is an ‘infant government,’ requiring a great deal of internal and external support to develop into a legitimate and powerful authority. Besides the problems left behind by the prior regime, the new government has to contend with the negative policies and mistakes made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

The disbanding of the Iraqi army and security services ensured that the government has extremely limited resources with which to enforce its policies, most notably in the area of security and rule of law. The authority of the CPA also saw economic setbacks in the administration of reconstruction contracts. Many argue that economic opportunities in the various reconstruction programs continue to be unfairly restricted to "friends" of the CPA. Such friends consist of organizations and individuals with direct or indirect links to the US administration. In general, this arrangement has supported an environment of corruption and continues to create antagonism between the haves and have-nots in Iraq’s business and economic communities, as ordinary Iraqis compete for shares of lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Whether or not this is a new government depends on its ability to deliver greater stability under increasingly difficult odds. In addition to the problems inherited from the prior regime, the government has to contend with the setbacks experienced by Iraq under the CPA in the areas of security and the administration of reconstruction projects. The government’s mission is to ensure a more stable environment in terms of security and a fairer distribution of economic opportunities among ordinary Iraqis. A new government is one that can ensure that Iraq functions as a proper nation; one that can allow ordinary Iraqis to activate Iraq’s true potential as a source of progress and stability and to realize sustainable benefits from this. A new government is one that allows Iraq to function as a constructive member of the international community.-Published 8/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Jaafar Altaie is a geopolitical analyst with over 10 years experience in Iraqi geopolitics, with emphasis on the energy and financial sectors. He currently runs his own consulting practice in Iraq.

Iraqis give questionable government a chance
a conversation with Abbas Mehdi

BI: What do you think of the people who make up the new Iraqi government?

Mehdi: As individuals, they are good people, but some of their backgrounds are suspect. They previously supported or were committed to different states or organizations; therefore, their loyalty to Iraq is questionable.

BI: During the mere seven months between now and the planned elections, will this government be able to meet the most pressing demands of the Iraqi people?

Mehdi: Let's put it this way: this government is inherently weak for many reasons. Most of its members came from the Governing Council or were supported by it, and we all know the Governing Council failed. None of these individuals has national credibility or recognition. The presence of upwards of 140,000 United States soldiers and the fact that the interim government is protected by them calls into question not only the government's credibility but also its effectiveness.

Having said that, the Iraqi people are very tired and looking for any person or government to save them from the terrible situation they are in now. So the Iraqi people will give this government a chance. If this government is able to make some progress on the most important issues facing the Iraqi people--security, basic services, jobs/economy, and elections--then we have a good chance to move forward with stability. Otherwise, we will continue with chaos and destruction. Iraq now is at a critical juncture in its history. Time will tell; in the next three to four months, we will find out what this government can do.

BI: What will be this government's greatest challenge?

Mehdi: Security. They [insurgents] are challenging them [the government] in the street. Yesterday [July 7th] they attacked the home of the prime minister. Today there was a firefight in Samarra. Four US soldiers and seven Iraqis were killed. There is still a lot of bad news.

BI: Do you think this government will be able to bring the security situation under control?

Mehdi: Nobody knows. They are trying and trying hard, and they are hoping.

BI: What's your view on the upcoming elections?

Mehdi: The situation in Iraq now is not ripe for elections; the immediate needs are security and basic services. The main institutions are lacking, and the social structure is not ready for elections. There is a large segment of Iraqi society missing--the middle class. You have religious leaders and tribal leaders, but what is missing is the middle class of educated and skilled people who could build a modern society.

BI: Iraq now has ministries for human rights and women's rights. Will this make a difference, or can we expect more of the abuses we have seen in the past?

Mehdi: I think it's going to get gradually, slowly better. Women in Iraqi society are getting more aggressive, but it will take a long time [for women to enjoy their full rights] because it has to do with the culture, structure of the family, and structure of society.

BI: How would you define success for this interim government?

Mehdi: Progress on security--as a capital city, Baghdad must function. Now it's not functioning as a normal city. There are firefights in the street. The government can declare success when people feel safe to leave their homes, their children go to school, and there are water, electricity, and jobs. These are the immediate needs. Of course, there are big issues: how to rebuild the country, what comprehensive strategy should be used to build the whole nation. It is going to be tough.

BI: How do the different groups in Iraq feel about the new government?

Mehdi: Most would like to give a chance to this government--not because they love this government but because of the security and services issue. If stability and security come, these groups will act in a different way. They would like to have a true democracy that involves more people. Now there is no democracy; the government is just selected individuals.-Published 8/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Abbas Mehdi is a professor of management and sociology at the University of St. Cloud in Minnesota, USA, and the chairman of the Union of Independent Iraqis.

The honeymoon will not last
by Michael Rubin

On June 28 Iraq formally regained its sovereignty. The departure of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer marked not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning.

There will be violence in the wake of transfer of sovereignty. Even before moving the ceremony up by two days, CPA security officers had scrapped plans for a lavish hand-off. Fear of roadside bombs forced United States authorities to shuttle dignitaries by helicopter, rather than to bus them, the 18 kilometers between Baghdad International Airport and the Palace. The preemptive ceremony and tacit admission that the US military could not secure 18 kilometers of highway bolstered the confidence of terrorists and insurgents who wish to test both Iraq’s new government and US resolve.

In some ways, transfer of sovereignty is anti-climactic. Several hundred US officials remain inside the green zone. There will be no withdrawal of American troops. But military presence and sovereignty are not mutually exclusive: No one questions the sovereignty of Qatar, Korea, Turkey, Italy, or South Korea even though they host US bases.

The US decision to remain inside the Republican Palace, however, is a mistake. Saddam lavishly rebuilt the palace under sanctions, after the 1991 bombing campaign reduced it to rubble. He added huge wings, gardens, and a swimming pool. The palace, visible from across the Tigris River in the crumbling and decrepit Shi‘ite Karrada neighborhood, now symbolizes not only Saddam’s dictatorship, but occupation as well. The continued closure of the Fourteenth of July Bridge triples the commuting time of Iraqis who once relied on a major thoroughfare connecting two of Baghdad’s busiest districts; it is a daily affront to ordinary Baghdadis.

Maintaining a US presence in the palace may buy convenience, but it will not boost effectiveness. In Lebanon, for example, it has been 13 years since the end of the civil war. Beirut is a bustling city sporting fancy boutiques, posh restaurants, and beach resorts. And yet US embassy personnel remain restricted to their compound. If American diplomats cannot function in Beirut, how will they interact with Iraqis in Baghdad?

Iraq’s interim government will face many challenges. First and foremost is security. Iraqis will cheer the government on, if effective. After all, the insurgents are unpopular among Iraqis. Any analogy to southern Lebanon falls flat. Targeting Iraqi civilians with car bombs wins neither hearts nor minds.

The political challenges are great. For the past year, Iraqi politicians blamed their ineffectiveness on Bremer who, five days before the inauguration of the Interim Governing Council, announced that he could veto any Governing Council decision. Populist politicians like Da’wa leader Ibrahim Jaafari coupled grandiose promises with explanations that they had not succeeded because of Bremer’s veto. Iraqi politicians can no longer play such games.

Iraqis will be impatient with failure on the part of the new government to meet expectations. Unfortunately, the new government will be handicapped. The Governing Council spent the first three months of its existence hashing out internal rules and regulations; with a new structure, the new government will have to repeat the process. Iraqis may want responsive government, but they will get paralysis.

The new government’s honeymoon will not last long. There is already grumbling that the United Nations deferred more to outside interests than to Iraqis in the selection of the new government. Iraqis point out Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s close association to the Jordanian royal family. They see President Ghazi al-Yawar as a concession to Saudi interests. Deputy President Jaafari is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran. Rowsch Shaways, the other deputy president, is close to Turkey.

United Nations involvement in the new government’s selection will not bring lasting legitimacy. Iraqis associate the UN with corruption. Iraqi newspapers like al Mada publish documents exposing bribery of UN officials. Iraqis remember Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s quip at a 1998 press conference, “Can I trust Saddam Hussein? Yes, I think I can do business with him.” Perception is more important than reality. Saddam, wanting to imply UN endorsement, replayed Annan’s statement frequently on Iraqi television. Belief in the UN’s effectiveness ended on August 19, 2024, when a truck bomb destroyed the UN’s Baghdad headquarters. Rather than persevere, the UN fled. The message to Iraqis was clear: the UN does not have staying power; any UN decision can be negated through violence.

Real legitimacy in Iraq will only come through elections, set to occur by January 31, 2024. Any move to delay elections will result in cynicism and disillusionment. Confidence is already shaken with the decision to move a national conference to select an Interim National Council from Baghdad to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Many issues remain unresolved. Against the recommendation of most Iraqis, Bremer and UN Envoy Carina Perelli have endorsed a party slate system similar to Israel’s. Most Iraqis (militant Shi‘ite Islamists excepted) prefer a single-member constituency system in which voters choose among candidates for a specific district seat. Accountability breeds moderation. While a party slate election is easier to conduct, it will set Iraq down the slippery slope to Lebanese-style communalism. Party slate elections can also lead to huge numbers of Iraqi towns and villages having no representatives in the national government. And they will make the Iraqi electoral process more vulnerable to an influx of Saudi, Iranian, and Jordanian money. Simply put, it is easier to fund an entire party list than to buy voters in 275 districts.

It is too early either to claim success or mourn Iraq’s loss. What is certain is that the United States won a stunning military victory but lost the occupation. The CPA achieved a great deal but nothing that could not have been achieved with an immediate transfer of sovereignty. The last battle, the one for a representative, democratic government, has yet to be decided. Iraqis are much more resilient than outside politicians and pundits believe. They have no desire to revert to dictatorship. I have faith they will succeed.-Published 8/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Temporary steps on road to democracy?
by Sadegh Zibakalam

The army came to power in Iraq during the revolution of 1958. A group of nationalists, Ba'athists and above all pro-Nasser officers, overthrew the government of Nuri Said, the British-installed monarch, and declared Iraq a republic. From 1958 until 2024, Iraq was literally ruled by its armed forces: Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasem, the leader of the revolution, his successor General Abdul Salam Aref, then General Hasan al Bakr, and finally Saddam Hussein in 1979. The army subdued the Kurds in the north, suppressed the Shi'ites in the south, and silenced the Sunni opposition, but the United States dismantled the army--pillar of the Iraqi state--in less than two weeks.

The Americans had a somewhat simplistic view of Iraq and its future. They believed that by overthrowing the much feared and hated Saddam Hussein regime, the Iraqi people would thank them as their liberators and be grateful to the US president. Ahmad Chalabi, Iraq's equivalent of Afghanistan's Hamed Karzai, would majestically be installed in Baghdad, and the Iraqi people would live happily ever after. US President George W. Bush and his advisors were so convinced of this scenario that they planned for Iraq to be a role model for the rest of the Middle East. Hence emerged the notion of a new or enlarged Middle East, where western democracy would prevail followed by political development and economic prosperity.

The first bullets fired at the Americans in Fallujah and the religious processions attended by hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites in Karbala and Najaf shattered President Bush's dream and awakened Pentagon leaders to the realities of Iraq. Far from bestowing hero or liberator status, most Iraqis wanted the Americans out of their country. They did thank the allies but then urged them to leave Iraq.

Being unwelcome was not the only problem the Americans confronted in Iraq. It did not take long for the administration to realize how unpopular its installed interim government was with the Iraqi people. The US-installed regime in Iraq lacked political legitimacy and social respectability. Moreover, it proved too inefficient and weak to perform as a viable state apparatus. Furthermore, some members of the interim government turned out to be too close to the Islamic regime in Tehran, considered by President Bush to be part of the "axis of evil."

Confronted with these vexing realities, the Americans were left only with one viable alternative: to abandon the idea of a new Middle East and opt for a more realistic solution for the future of Iraq. They adopted the traditional repressive style of governing Iraq. This partly explains the tragic abuses that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison. More fundamentally, however, the Americans reached the conclusion that whatever the merits of democracy, for the time being they had to make do with a less democratic form of government in Iraq. Hopefully, this government would be able to deliver what allied military might had failed to provide: security, stability, and law and order (not to mention electricity, water, and jobs).

The new Iraqi government, which was hastily assembled before the official handover on June 28th, is expected to perform far better than its predecessor. The security package presented on July 5th by Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, is a desperate attempt to create some degree of law and order in an otherwise lawless Iraq. Many critics promptly accused the new government of following the familiar pattern of Middle Eastern police states. Iraqi officials dismissed these criticisms, insisting that the measures were only temporary ones to establish some degree of law and order. The problem is that Middle Eastern leaders have always used so-called temporary measures supposedly to establish order and stability before implementing democracy. Somehow the temporary tends to last forever.

The new Iraqi regime has also distanced itself from Syria and particularly from Iran. Its acting foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, accused both Tehran and Damascus of allowing terrorists and extremists to infiltrate Iraq from their borders. It remains to be seen whether the new Iraqi regime's stance against Iran is serious or only to please Washington. Only the future will show if it was right to forsake its important neighbor for the sake of the US.-Published 8/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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