Things are getting interesting in Iraq. In the right corner, we find the American occupation forces. In the left corner, at least 70 brand new Iraqi political parties. The man-in-charge is America’s proconsul, Paul Bremer. And now steps into the ring someone who in theory could be the referee: Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, the new United Nations special representative in Iraq.
Officially, there’s no more bad blood between Washington and the UN regarding Iraq. Reality indicates otherwise. Bremer said that the UN could “actively contribute” to the new Iraqi political process – according to Resolution 1483 approved by the Security Council on May 22. But nobody knows how. Vieira de Mello’s mission will last only four months. He won’t have any formal authority: he said he would just be free to “contact Iraqi political forces”, without having to wait for an OK from proconsul Bremer.
Vieira de Mello is stepping into a minefield. Bremer has already announced still another change of America’s plans for Iraq, which foresee even less participation by Iraqi political parties. Iraqis are furious. Non-stop demonstrations, all basically demanding “America go home” are starting to invoke the protection of the UN itself. Vieira de Mello arrived in Baghdad essentially saying that the sooner Iraqis govern themselves, the better. Bremer seems to be saying the same thing – but he refuses to detail the calendar of a transition that could last “a year or two”. In late April, weeks after the fall of Saddam, newly-empowered Shi’ite and Sunni political voices alike were saying that they would wait for a maximum two months.
Bremer is saying that the priorities are to reestablish the primacy of law and public order; to get basic services back in business; to revitalize civil society; to improve the economic situation; and to put in place a representative democratic government. Lofty words. Baghdad fell on April 9; as of June 4, the Americans have not even started to implement these “priorities”.
The new American plan effectively buries the Iraqi National Congress – which was supposed to convene initially in May: the date was then postponed to July. This congress was to appoint an Iraqi interim government – but then this government was degraded by the Americans to the status of a simple “authority”. Bremer now wants to set up a “political council”: 25 to 30 members, chosen by – who else – the Americans. This council will appoint ministerial “advisers”, and these “advisers” will become “interim ministers”. Democracy it ain’t.
Bremer’s new council will also have to prepare a referendum over a new constitution, drafted by a still fuzzy assembly (nobody knows yet how its members will be chosen). Americans are saying that the whole complex process will take place in a maximum of six weeks: so the new American-made Iraqi democracy should be running slightly before Saddam’s announced date for the beginning of an anti-American Intifada: July 27 (See The Saddam intifada, May 28).
Theoretically, the seven Iraqi political leaders who are negotiating with the American occupation forces will be part of Bremer’s “political council”. They are definitely not happy with their new degraded status. This Iraqi G7 has unanimously expressed “serious reservations” regarding the plan. But Entifadh Qambar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, swears the G7 will maintain its strategy: “The congress is an Iraqi initiative, the Americans cannot cancel it.”
This means a surrealist scenario in which both Bremer and the G7 will engage in their parallel ways to form an Iraqi government. The G7 swears the “dialogue” will continue. But Iraqis are starting to wonder whether Bremer’s game is to bet on a bitterly-split congress which would reveal to everybody the profound differences among the seven parties. If this happens, Vieira de Mello’s mission would also be endangered: the UN representative could find himself in the uncomfortable position of supporting a congress that will lead to nowhere.
A glimpse of what goes on in Vieira de Mello’s mind can be offered by a text he wrote before going to Baghdad, obtained by Asia Times Online. He writes, “Traditional definitions of security were proven useless in the crisis that recently shook the world. It is the long-suffering Iraqi people who are bearing the consequences of war, and of a peace that is contested and controversial. It may be evident that now it’s time for all states to redefine global security, placing human rights at the center of the debate. In doing so, each nation must exercise its responsibilities. That’s when responsible states – and not those that are merely stronger – will be capable of offering lasting stability to our world.”
What are influential Iraqis saying about all this imbroglio? The real post-war Iraqi leaders are not politicians, but clerics. Ayatollah al-Sistani – one of the two leading Shi’ite authorities in post-war Iraq – may represent the non-militant side of al-Hawza, the supreme Shi’ite religious authority based in Najaf. Sistani apparently is telling his followers to cooperate with the Americans: as they have toppled Saddam, they should be given the benefit of the doubt.
But leading Shi’ite religious leader Kadhim Abadi seems to be more in tune with popular sentiment. In his latest prayer in front of the al-Mohsin mosque in the former Baghdad Shi’ite stronghold, the Saddam City slum (renamed Sadr City), he went straight to the point, “We demand that the American forces get out of Iraq. The Iraqi people have the right to run their own country.” And he also significantly said that the UN had no right to legitimize the control of Iraq by the US and Britain. For Iraqis, the occupation itself remains the ultimate humiliation: as Abadi put it, “the sin of the occupation is greater than the endowment of liberty”. He accused the Americans of deliberately making daily life difficult, and then arranging for the lifting of UN sanctions “in order to make us forget about this occupation”. Abadi said, “We cannot be bought for gold”.
Meanwhile, in Fallujah, 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, leading Sunni religious leader Jamal Shakir Mahmoud al-Rifai was saying practically the same thing: US forces should depart now or they could face an uprising by former members of the Iraqi army. Al-Rifai stressed that “the hearts of the people of Fallujah are boiling with anger, and their anger grows bigger every day”.