A Council Already Divided
July 30, 2003

Maria Tomchick

With US troops dying daily in Iraq, the Bush administration has been pushing its viceroy, Paul Bremer, to jump-start Iraqi democracy. The product of this pressure is the new governing council. But two weeks after its formation, questions remain about its makeup, effectiveness, and whether the Iraqi people will eventually accept it as a new governing body.

Reporters in the field say that Iraqis are split over the new council, expressing a mixture of hope and doubt. Their hope is for an Iraqi government that will bring an end to the US occupation. Their doubt is based on an acknowledgment that the council is nothing more than a figurehead that has done little so far to address their problems, while simultaneously helping to legitimize US rule on the international stage. The fact that Paul Bremer chose the members of the council and will retain veto over its decisions certainly doesn't help its credibility. Nor does the fact that its meetings are not public, but are held under tight security to prevent Iraqi guerrilla attacks.

Another problem is that two-thirds of the council is composed of Iraqi exiles and Kurdish leaders (who've spent the past 13 years living in northern Iraq, outside of Saddam Hussein's influence). This was to be expected, given that Bremer met exclusively with exile groups--many of them funded and supported by the Pentagon--while he drew up the list of candidates to sit on the council. But this dominance by "outsiders" has left Iraqi citizens convinced that the new council is out of touch with their needs and concerns.

The non-exile members of the council are a mixed bag of professionals: doctors, judges, lawyers, businessmen, writers, etc. None of them have much political experience and few are well-known among ordinary Iraqis. This has made it easier for exiles to dominate. During the council's first press conference, for example, the exiles took control, answering questions from the press and defining the council's agenda, while the non-exile members sat by quietly watching.

In fact, the only members of the council with any political experience at all are Adnan Pachachi, an 80-year-old exile whose last diplomatic job was to serve as foreign minister of Iraq for only two years back in the mid-1960s, and Akila al-Hashimi, a former Baath Party official who worked for Saddam Hussein's former deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz.

This hasn't stopped the Bush administration from making glowing pronouncements about the future of the council, based mostly on its "diversity." In one sense, that's correct: the council's ethnic makeup is an accurate reflection of the Iraqi population (as far as can be known without a census). Iraqis, however, have plenty of complaints regarding the diversity of the council, particularly its religious and political composition.

There are three religious figures who sit on the body: two Shiites and one Sunni. Of the two Shiites, both are former exiles: Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, a liberal religious scholar from Najaf who fled the country in 1991, and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, brother of the Ayatollah Mohammad Bakar al-Hakim, who runs the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI, based in Iran, has a long and stormy relationship with the Pentagon and the CIA. The CIA believes that SCIRI has accepted arms and training from the Iranian government; certainly SCIRI's goal is for an Iranian-style fundamentalist revolution in Iraq. But the Pentagon knows it can negotiate with SCIRI and, in the current context, SCIRI's exile status is a plus. Without a broad base of support in Iraq, SCIRI won't be as much trouble as, say, a popular fundamentalist religious leader from Najaf.

This exclusion of local Shiite religious leaders has not gone down well in the holy city of Najaf and other southern areas of Iraq--supposedly the most trouble-free region for US troops. Fiery rhetoric, demonstrations, and threats of a religious war have ensued. Even the popular, moderate Shiite cleric Ali Husseini al-Sistani has issued a fatwa demanding that the US allow the representatives of a constitutional council to be elected by popular vote, instead of being chosen by this non-representative governing council.

Among the nine Sunni representatives on the council, two are exiles (Adnan Pachachi and Ghazi al-Yawer, a civil engineer who lived for 15 years in Saudi Arabia), four are Kurds, one is a secular human rights lawyer, one a secular businessman, and one a Koranic scholar and head of the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sunni tribal leaders, popular religious leaders, or former Baath Party officials with real hands-on political experience need not apply (unless they're Shiite, like al-Hashimi).

Al-Hashimi is one of only three women on the governing council. This has disappointed Iraqi women's groups who had called for 30% representation on the council. (Iraqi women make up at least 55% of the population.) In addition, the most popular women's candidate, feminist Lina Aboud, was dropped from the roster at the last minute at the insistence of the fundamentalist SCIRI representative. Only one of the three remaining women on the council, Sondul Chapouk, is a women's rights activist.

If the council lacks religious, gender, and political diversity, it does replicate a form of diversity that will negatively impact its effectiveness in the future: it includes all of the major political players who formed the first Iraqi National Congress in 1990. It risks duplicating the factional fights that tore apart the Iraqi exile community over a decade ago. Ahmed Chalabi, for example, is not even on speaking terms with his rival, Ayad Allawi, yet both of them sit on the council. And both of the major Kurdish representatives on the council, Massoud Barzani of the KDP and Jalal Talabani of the PUK, have spent the past decade waging a civil war for control of northern Iraq.

A paralysis has already settled over the council. Its first acts have been largely symbolic: announcing a new holiday, banning a few old holidays that celebrated the Hussein regime, and announcing the formation of a new tribunal to try former Baathists for human rights abuses (without giving any timeline or details of how the tribunals would function or who would run them). Two of its foremost duties have fallen by the wayside: selecting a leader for the council and choosing ministers for an interim government. Clearly, too many old rivalries dominate the proceedings for even the most fundamental decisions to be made. Instead of a single leader, the council has opted for a rotating chair. Of course, the first chairperson has yet to be selected.

The council has made one decision, however. Paul Bremer pushed the governing council to select a delegation to the UN to ask for international recognition. The US desperately needs UN recognition so that Bremer can begin signing oil contacts and the Pentagon can persuade reluctant allies to send troops to Iraq to replace exhausted US soldiers. The fact that the council has jumped to fulfill Bremer's priorities hasn't been wasted on ordinary Iraqis, who are still waiting for electricity, clean water, and security.

The three candidates selected for the UN mission are a reflection of who dominates the council's proceedings: former exile Adnan Pachachi (rumored to be the Pentagon's favorite for Iraqi president), former exile Ahmed Chalabi (the convicted thief who would love to slip right into Saddam Hussein's shoes), and former Baathist Akila al-Hashimi, sent along to mediate between the two. Even within this three-person delegation, the council's divisions were readily apparent. Chalabi threw a tantrum when his Pentagon handlers told him that he wouldn't get to address the UN, but that Pachachi would instead.

If this is a sign of things to come, then the road to democracy in Iraq will be a long and treacherous one, and US involvement will not end in two years, three years, or five years. Even a decade may not be long enough to straighten out this mess.


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