Saturday, April 30, 2005

Archival Rescue 21 ~ Iraq, Paul McGeough

Elusive Democracy
April 30, 2005, Paul McGeough, Sydney Morning Herald

The announcement of a new cabinet in Iraq is not the end of the process - it's just the very beginning, writes Paul McGeough.

Hardly a shot was fired. Iraqis celebrate great events by pumping lead into the sky. But as they contemplated the uncertain state of their first elected government in half a century on Thursday night, the guns were left behind the kitchen door.

Three long months ago they had stepped out to the polls, refusing to be intimidated by insurgency threats of a bloodbath. But, for now at least, they have a half-baked government that is taut with tension and distrust.

Many dwelt on the historic nature of the day. In Washington, President George Bush hailed the new leadership team as the face of Iraqi unity and diversity - but unity was in short supply and diversity was the problem.

A local observer, who shares the benefit of his wisdom with the Herald from time to time, was pensive as Thursday's assembly session wrapped up: "You remember at the end of the invasion we talked about the two dialogues - the one that Iraqis have with the Americans and the other, more important one, that they have among themselves. That's what you are seeing now."

He was contrasting insistent claims by prominent players that there had to be unity and inclusiveness, with a hectoring speech to the assembly by the black-turbaned Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Shiite political alliance that dominates the parliament and the new cabinet. Hakim is a powerful figure behind the new Government and many Shiites talk of the broad sweep of ministries allocated to his religious colleagues as his personal fiefdom.

So when he warned against "handing over the country's assets to our enemies", and called on the Government to "de-Baathify Saddam's terrorists from all state institutions", many inside and outside his tent read it as an imminent purge of the security forces and the bureaucracy.

Despite the herculean tasks ahead, and rising public anger coupled with pressure from the White House and from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the single most powerful figure in post-Saddam Iraq, the politicians were simply unable to name a complete government.

Obliged by an ethnic and religious impasse to shove colleagues into critical ministries on an acting basis - defence, oil, electricity and human rights - and to leave two of the four deputy prime ministerships vacant, the prime minister-designate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, still argued that his partial cabinet represented "national unity".

Hakim and Jaafari's religious Shiite coalition took 17 posts. The Kurds, king-makers in the assembly by dint of their second-biggest block of votes, won eight; the Sunnis, who largely boycotted the poll, got seven (including tourism); and there is one Christian. Six ministers are women and none is from the political group of the outgoing interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi.

Jaafari promised on Thursday to name the remaining cabinet appointees "in a few days".

This is another transitional government. Its key task is to supervise the drafting of a new constitution. Given it took 12 weeks to put together a partial cabinet, it seems most unlikely it can deliver a new national charter in the 15 weeks to the deadline in August. The constitutional debate must settle all the hoary old chestnuts of Iraqi politics and society. These are the deeply divisive, no-middle-ground issues at the heart of the conflicting political, ethnic and religious agendas in post-Saddam Iraq.

Each time they became a stumbling block since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, they were deferred to be dealt with in this process. They include the role of Islam and the conservative tenets of sharia law; the unremitting wrangle between central and regional government over control of potentially massive oil revenues; and Kurdish demands for regional autonomy and, especially, their demands for control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

It's a high-stakes game. The process imposed on Iraq by the US has involved short-term appointed or elected administrations, in which most of the players have had more of an eye on surviving into the next round than on the needs of their economically crippled and insurgency-bloodied nation.

In that sense, this is the endgame. The new constitution is scheduled to be endorsed by a referendum at the end of the year - though there is a provision in the transitional law for a six-month delay. But after the referendum, there is to be yet another national vote to appoint the government that will rule till the end of the decade.

The risk now is that having squandered the past three months, Jaafari's team will have hardly warmed their ministerial chairs before they, too, shift into election mode, in which conflicting and divisive populist agendas will distract them from any sense of a single government agenda.

Amid all that they have to find a circuit-breaker to a virulent insurgency that wound back in the weeks after the January 30 poll but which, US and Iraqi officials say, has been coming back with a vengeance as the political impasse over the cabinet dragged on.

Building on the US and Allawi-backed campaign to draw Sunnis into the armed and intelligence services and the bureaucracy after the disaster of the early US decision to remove Baathists from government and to disband what was left of Saddam's Sunni-dominated military, calls for the inclusion of Sunnis in the new cabinet were intended to drive a wedge into the insurgency.

But Jaafari's refusal to accept Sunni ministerial nominees and Hakim's call for a purge could be a serious setback. There is an expectation that Hakim's Badr Brigade militia will be given control of the military, police and intelligence services, in which the US has invested more than $US5 billion ($6.4 billion).

The US has tried to argue that only former Baathists directly involved in Saddam's atrocities should be barred - possibly hundreds of individuals. But Jaafari and his colleagues made clear they want a sweep of thousands, insisting on trials for any former officials or soldiers accused of wrongdoing in the Saddam decades. A hardline Hakim associate, Hussain Shahristani, also insisted recently that thousands more involved in the insurgency would have to be prosecuted.

After years of suffering at the hands of Saddam, the Shiite leadership does not believe in a negotiated rapprochement - it argues that only guns, not talking, will see off the insurgency. "I don't think the insurgency can be beaten by negotiations," Shahristani said. "For us in [Hakim's] alliance, we don't think it's serious. We think it's surrender, and the Iraqi people will not accept surrender." And there was more than a hint of vengeance when he said: "We know that most senior officials in the [interior ministry] are from the previous intelligence department who've been oppressing the Iraqi people."

It all sets the stage to drive even more Sunnis into the embrace of the insurgency and for what the political commentator Wamidh Nadhmi described as "a warlord system that will destroy the country". He told the Herald: "It doesn't say much for democracy. The Sunnis have to be allowed to participate. The Sunnis they have included in the cabinet are not taken seriously, so I have no confidence in its ability to be a uniting force. This Government is not viable.

"They are opening the door to the security services for the Badr [Brigade] and this is a cause of real fear." Jaafari's cabinet is propped up by a deal in which the Shiites and the Kurds have attempted to accommodate their conflicting agendas - its detail has not been released. Allawi tried to bluff his way into power. He failed and now goes into opposition; and the Sunnis, who all sides insisted must be included, have been left dangling.

The politicians' inability to put on even a veneer of unity underscored a deep anxiety as observers watch Iraq's wearied population seek a haven - the things that bind these Iraqi groups have much less cohesive power than those that divide them.

"This Government is unjust and we reject it totally," said Alaa Makhi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a well-known Sunni party which boycotted the election. "It does not suggest credibility on the other side, and it does not represent a national accord."

The Sunnis have been offered one of the deputy prime ministerships and the important defence ministry - but only if they nominate candidates that are acceptable to the Shiites.

"It was very disappointing for us that most of our candidates have been sent back," said vice-president Ghazi Yawar, who had been a key Sunni negotiator. He gave as an example Sadoun al-Dulame, whom the Shiites rejected as a candidate for defence. He is a sociologist who went into exile after he was sentenced to death by Saddam.

Thursday had all the trimmings of a historic day. But 89 members, including Allawi, did not present themselves for the ceremonial naming of this incomplete government. A Shiite MP, Lame'a Abed Khadawi, was absent, too - she was gunned down on Wednesday when she opened the gate of her home to a stranger.

It's a dangerous time to be a Sunni in Iraq. Equally, it will be dangerous for Shiites if the Sunni minority is pushed to the fringes. And it's a dangerous time for all if the Kurds flex their muscle to the extent that some US officials now publicly canvass the risks of civil war.

All this will severely test the extent to which the US can control events - it does have a fat chequebook but many Shiite hardliners argue they are capable of taking over the security agencies and dealing with their enemies. Many, in fact, relish the opportunity.


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