For fear of a bang, US formalises Iraq ‘transfer of power’ with a whimper

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Jumada' al-Ula' 13, 1425 2004-07-01

Occupied Arab World

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 5, Jumada' al-Ula', 1425)

The US formally transferred responsibility for the government of Iraq to a sovereign interim government on June 28, two days before the scheduled handover date of June 30...

The US formally transferred responsibility for the government of Iraq to a sovereign interim government on June 28, two days before the scheduled handover date of June 30. Some US officials tried to explain the change in date as being in line with the US’s pious intention to transfer sovereignty back to Iraqis as soon as they were ready, which condition was reached ahead of schedule. Everyone knew that the real reason was the the US, which had originally intended to hold a triumphant, high-profile ceremony to mark the event, had instead done it ahead of schedule and in secret to avoid the occasion’s being overshadowed by popular protests or resistance attacks. Paul Bremer’s departure from Iraq later the same day was supposed to symbolise the US’s magnanimous withdrawal from power; instead it was widely seen as an ignominious retreat.

It was all a far cry from the US’s triumphalism a year ago, when George W. Bush and others insisted that they would not begin the process of political change until Ba’athist military resistance was ended. Then the expectation was that it would justify a delay of a few months, in which the US could consolidate its institutional grip on the country before gracefully ceding power to the government of a grateful nation that would welcome a continued US role in the future of the country. Instead the US has found itself confronting an angry country that has increasingly supported resistance movements of various kinds, while demanding that the US get out and do not return. The US’s object now is simply to turn a military disaster into something that can be presented, however unconvincingly, as a political success.

It is widely accepted in Iraq that the new interim government, headed by Ayad Allawi, a former exile known to have close links with the CIA, is little more independent than the Coalition Provisional Authority that it replaces. This was even hinted by the Western officials responsible for putting it together, under the auspices of the UN after Ayatullah Sistani rejected plans drawn up by Bremer. The UN’s envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, admitted publicly that his role in shaping the interim government had been "sharply limited" by the US and Bremer, whom he called the "dictator of Iraq". Asked about Allawi’s appointment, he said "Whether Dr Allawi was their choice, whether they manoeuvred to get him into position, you’d better ask them."

The membership of the new government clearly reflects the US’s determination to appoint Iraqis who are more likely to serve the US’s agenda than to cause problems by trying to put Iraqi interests first. Although the US backed down and accepted the appointment of Ghazi al-Yawar as president, that position is largely ceremonial. The key positions of prime minister and deputy prime minister have been given to close allies of the US, Allawi and Barham Saleh, formerly prime minister of the part of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK has been allied to Washington since 1991, and Saleh has previously served as its representative in Washington, where he established close relations with the state and defence departments. He will be responsible for the interim government’s security and interior policies, key areas for the US. Of the 36 members of the interim government, no less than 24 have foreign nationalities, mainly British and American.

The transfer of power was granted international legality and legitimacy – for what those are worth – by UN Security Council Resolution 1546, passed unanimously, after weeks of negotiation, on June 8. This confirms the political process mapped out by the US and Brahimi, by which a constitutional assembly is to be elected in January 2005 – one of Allawi’s first acts after the transfer of power was to announce that the election will take place on January 2 – and full elections, on the basis of the new constitution, by the end of 2005. How realistic all that is remains to be seen, considering that the US has already begun backtracking on some of the promises it made in order to get the resolution passed, particularly on human rights issues. In light of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the US promised that all prisoners would be released or transferred to Iraqi custody after the hand-over; it now appears that the high-profile transfer of Saddam Hussain will be used to fudge the fact that other prisoners remain in US custody; Allawi, of course, is unlikely to object to important decisions being made in Washington, although he will no doubt be permitted to demonstrate his supposed autonomy by challenging the US on side issues such as the use of Saddam Hussain’s Presidential palace. Even before the transfer took place, Allawi was serving the US’s interests before those of Iraqis. While the UN resolution was being negotiated, France demanded that Iraq’s government be granted operational control over international troops in the country. Allawi failed to support this crucial demand, with the result that the issue was fudged.

However, it should be recognised that the UN resolution, despite providing the US with the figleaf of legitimacy that it requires, also makes key political points against the US. With the US forced back to the international community that was so publicly disparaged before the war, the US’s offended allies were keen to score points. Thus France, Germany, Russia and other members refused to recognise the legitimacy of the US invasion and occupation, instead recognising only their reality. The resolution also specifies that the US troops lose their mandate as soon as the constitutional process is completed, so the resolution cannot be used to justify things that the UN security council does not intend.

These points are relevant, yet the reality is that in Iraq the US remains very much in charge, with the ability and opportunity to consolidate its position there during the next few months.

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