3 December 2003

Phase three: civil war

A parallel, political battle for control is also gathering momentum, as Iraqis contemplate life after the Coalition Provisional Authority. Members of the US-appointed governing council are manoeuvring for position in a future, interim or directly elected government, reneging on their agreement last month to give up power. The Shia leadership, representing a majority of the population, is beginning to flex its political muscle, particularly in respect of establishing the 'Islamic character' of any new constitution and leadership. It is clear, as always, that the Kurdish north will not accept future political arrangements that in any way diminish its considerable autonomy.

And then, at the heart of the matter, figuratively and geographically, stand the Saddam Fedayeen of Samarra and the Sunni Triangle, the infamous, elusive 'Ba'athist remnants', and all those many Iraqi nationalists and resistance fighters who never accepted the US intervention and still reject it and all its works. These groups see no reason why they should forego the decisive power to which many have been accustomed. From their viewpoint, it is their attrition and their blood sacrifice that has been decisive in pushing the Americans into surrendering the political reins.

Despite all the events of the past 12 months, this next phase of the Iraq conflict could yet prove to be its most dangerous. The big picture, to the extent that it can be made out, suggests Iraq's future is still very much in the balance. An orderly transition and the assertion of legitimate, democratic governance is by no means assured. Continuing, escalating civil strife, scattering the seeds of a possible civil war, could yet turn out to be the Bush-Blair legacy in Iraq.

It's amazing that Straw can talk of an 'elected' government in which only 15 people will be allowed to vote in each of Iraq's 18 governorates. That is a definition of 'elected' that belongs with not in the last century but in the one before that. It is equally extraordinary that the agreement is said to be set in stone - except for the part abut dissolution of the unelected governing council. Really, you'd think ambitious IGC members could just arrange to have their nominees in the the provincial caucuses elect them to the transitional national assembly.

The PBS Newshour ran a longish interview today with Juan Cole and Gary Sick:

JUAN COLE: Well, Sistani is a genuine democrat. He believes that sovereignty resides in the body public. And so if you're going to have a government that's legitimate, it has to be elected by the people on a one-person/one-vote basis.

JIM LEHRER: And no other political agenda other than that?

JUAN COLE: Well, he knows, obviously that the majority of Iraqis is Shiite and therefore a one- person/one-vote type of election will return a majority Shiite government and certainly he believes that that's what Iraq should have.

JIM LEHRER: Gary Sick, how do you see this?

GARY SICK: You've got to remember that Sistani is perhaps the sole legitimate force in Iraqi politics today. Ayatollahs are not appointed; they are elected by their own people. Their people basically vote by giving them respect and money and support. And so he represents a body of people who in effect have elected him, and he is perhaps the only elected official -- he's not an official -- but he's the only elected person in Iraqi politics. That gives him tremendous legitimacy, much more so than any of the other institutions. And I think what we're seeing here is a struggle between his concept of legitimacy and that of the governing council and the American occupying force.

Juan Cole is not unknown to the blogosphere. Eric Sick has a long record of various national security jobs under Ford, Carter and Reagan. They both describe the situation in the same way.

The technical problem with the elections can be cured. The political problem is that a free and fair election is unlikely to produce a government friendly to the occupation or to continue the political careers of the IGC members. Vietnam and the rotating door government here we come.

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