Are Iraqis ready to take on the responsibilities of sovereignty?
Regardless of the government that assumes sovereign authority on June 30, it will remain fragile and weak at first, and heavily reliant on the United States. Indeed, the U.S. influence may remain so pervasive that it could look like indirect imperial control, which is how the British ran Iraq for decades. If the handover goes ahead as scheduled, Iraqis, Middle Easterners, or the world at large may not accept the government as legitimate. In that case, resistance attacks, which have already reached the dimensions of uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf, could spread and intensify.
The administration seems determined to make the handover on June 30. But the mood in Iraq among responsible people is this: get it right, even if it takes longer.
These conclusions emerged from a ten-day trip to Iraq in February by a six-person team from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Our team traveled 1,000 miles by car from Turkey across all of Iraq to Kuwait. Ours was one of the few groups—if not the only one—to have done this complete tour. We arranged our trip ourselves and controlled our itinerary rather than relying on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). We stayed in Iraqi hotels and traveled by ordinary cars. We were often on the road by 5:00 A.M., with meetings all day until dinner sessions that stretched well into the night.
We were in Irbil and Sulaymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan for discussions with leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Members of our group went to Halabja to interview Ansar al-Islam prisoners; to Kirkuk to meet with the Turkmen community; and to the Iranian mujahideens' camp Ashraf. In Baghdad, we spent three days meeting with senior CPA and coalition military officials. We also spent many hours with Governing Council (GC) members, Iraqi intellectuals, and senior Shi'ite clerics. From Baghdad, we went to Hilla where we met with a senior reformist cleric and a large group of tribal leaders. We then proceeded to Basra where we met British military and civilian officials, as well as another group of tribal leaders and the provincial governor.
From our top-to-bottom passage through Iraq, we reached the same conclusion as many of our Iraqi interlocutors: it would be a mistake to rush the political process in Iraq.
Government and Economy
The new Iraqi government is starting to take hold. Salaries are being paid promptly, and the new 11-grade salary schedule is generous. On January 1, the lowest government salary rose to 150,000 Iraqi dinars (ID) ($100) per month, compared to ID3,000 prewar. Additionally, food rations continue, so that a family gets a basket with more than 2,500 calories per person per day for a cost of less than ID1,000 per month. The government heavily subsidizes many other services such as electricity, kerosene for cooking and heating, and gasoline. There are no taxes. So the standard of living compares favorably to the recent past. At the upper level, salaries have also gone up but less so: the maximum is ID1,500,000 compared to ID300,000 prewar.
The traffic police provide an example of how the new government is working. Five months earlier, during a previous trip to Iraq, I found that some (but not all) of Baghdad's major intersections had a few bedraggled and dispirited traffic police struggling to get people's attention. Now almost every major intersection has a policeman confidently standing in the middle of the street, able to bring three lanes of traffic to a halt by just pointing his hand.
Harder to evaluate are the police charged with investigating crimes. We heard many plausible stories of how the police are beginning to have some successes investigating crimes—something they never did under Saddam Hussein. And we heard many stories about how people now report crimes, which shows a growing confidence in the police. This has an effect on police morale. We saw firsthand evidence of how highly prized police jobs are in the south: the very first action of the tribal leaders meeting with Basra's governor was to hand over a petition asking that a long list of their tribe members be hired for the force. CPA officials told us that they are besieged by such requests in Basra.
The situation with the police also shows how far the new government has to go. The police are poorly equipped and barely trained, and they are no match for the resistance. Indeed, given how little vetting was done, it is no surprise that some of the police have turned out to be sympathizers of the resistance—police by day and insurgents by night. Not only are the police of little use in combating political violence, they have not been able to make Iraqis secure from crime. The main danger for Iraqis remains ordinary criminals, not political attacks. There continues to be much fear about kidnappings and carjackings.
The police are also an example of how uncertainty causes everyone to hedge bets. We often heard how the same policemen who take orders from the coalition also take orders from one or more political parties (and that the same tribal leaders who work closely with the coalition are also actively protesting coalition policies). Some CPA officials had a tendency to minimize these dual loyalties and assume that the new Iraqi government institutions had taken root. In fact, these institutions have shallow roots; were there a storm, they would be badly shaken and might not survive.
Just as troubling as the crime situation, is the fact that Iraqis are still much influenced by the view that power proceeds from armed force. The long-standing Iraqi tradition is to keep an impressive amount of arms at home. (We heard about people celebrating Hussein's capture by firing rocket-propelled grenades into the air.) Many social groups are armed and organized, including new political parties, militias, and tribes. Iraqis are uncertain whether future power will derive from the ballot box or the gun barrel. Radical elements are already testing whether they can seize and hold local power by force of arms. If they succeed, many Iraqis may decide that force still is the way to power, and violence could spread and multiply.
Meanwhile, the economy is recovering, mostly because the new freedoms and confidence about the future are leading Iraqis to spend more and persuading Iraqi expatriates to send back cash. For example, the flood of Iranian pilgrims—15,000 a day through official crossing points was the estimate of one knowledgeable official—has so stimulated the Najaf economy that real estate prices are up ten-fold from before the war. The removal of sanctions and the abolition of the 300-percent tax on cars (part of the abolition of all taxes) have had spectacular results. Used cars are flooding into the country. The number of vehicles of all sorts registered in Basra province is up from 21,000 prewar to 50,000 now, and many vehicles are not registered.
Construction is also booming. There is a serious pollution problem in the south from the many new small brick factories that have sprung up in response to the ten-fold increase in brick prices as the demand for construction materials soars. We were told in Sulaymaniya that so many people are putting additions on their homes that there is a shortage of construction workers. Everyone ascribes the construction boom to greater confidence in the future.
But the economic progress is dependent on the security situation. If the mafias shaking down businessmen get bolder, or if the resistance gets strong enough to shut down economic development projects (in April, kidnappings practically did that), all the economic progress could be washed away. That would open a vicious cycle of growing despair, growing resistance, and diminished confidence in the future. A security vacuum could shut the economy down. It is hard to overstate the importance of the economic issue; as one Iraqi politician put it, "the belly is more important than the tongue," meaning people care more about meeting basic needs than about their new-found freedom of speech.
In the new politics, the most important factors are ethnicity, religion, and tribe. Because Hussein banned the institutions of civil society and instilled fear of speaking openly even to one's friends, Iraqis begin their new political life with few political connections outside the family. CPA polling has found that the family is the most important source of identity for the great majority of Iraqis. When they look outside the family, Iraqis still have few places to turn except their primordial links, i.e. to ethnic, religious, and tribal ties. Primordial groups define politics in zero-sum terms where every gain for one group is a loss for all the others. It is hardly surprising that the transition to a participatory system is producing increased ethno-religious and tribal tensions.
A major problem is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership. There are no signs that the Sunni community has widely respected leaders ready to work with the CPA, and it is not clear who could negotiate on their behalf. In the worst-case scenario, Sunnis could accept the resistance as their authentic voice. Such a Sunni leadership, with a radical pan-Arab ethos, could resonate deeply throughout the (Sunni) Arab world.
As for the Kurds, the signs are mixed. We heard many encouraging words from Kurdish leaders, including KDP ministers who are regarded as "difficult" by the CPA. We heard about the KDP's determination to create a Kurdistani identity, not a Kurdish one; about the KDP's close cooperation with the police in the rest of Iraq; and about the KDP volunteering to implement border policies declared by the national interior minister. The PUK is even more promising. PUK leader Jalal Talabani is the only Governing Council member to have traveled all over the country, and he is obviously campaigning to be president of Iraq (or at least one of the two deputy presidents).
Yet there are many worrying signs. We had Kurdish cabinet ministers tell us, "Iraq is something foreign to us," and "Without Saddam, there can be no Iraq of the sort they [the Sunnis] perceive." We were told that if Decree 137 (the Governing Council's proposed revamping of family law to allow recourse to religious courts) became law, the Kurdish governments would flatly refuse to apply it, claiming a right to civil disobedience.
The Arab residents encouraged by Hussein to move north present the most worrying problem. They are known as the 10,000-dinar Arabs—that is the sum Hussein offered them as an incentive to move north, at a time when it was real money. Every Kurdish official we met told us that these people must be encouraged to leave. Some hinted that the encouragement would be vigorous; others thought it would be sufficient to compensate Arabs, thereby allowing the original Kurdish homeowners to return. Some people have expansive ideas about which Arabs must leave; one senior official said the Arabization campaigns began in 1936, so Arabs who came after that should go.
No Kurdish official was willing to see the 10,000-dinar Arabs vote where they now live, and some strongly hinted that the Kurds would take action to assure that they wouldn't. The obvious problem area is Kirkuk, to which tens of thousands of Kurds have returned (despite the claim of the PUK to the contrary). And there are other flash points, such as the rich agricultural plain surrounding the city of Mosul and the Syrian border zone.
The proposal to leave things unchanged during the transition period is based on the fiction that there is a status quo. In fact, the Kurds are creating new facts on the ground. Kurdish militiamen (peshmerga) are manning the road checkpoints dozens of miles south of Kirkuk, way beyond the area of nominal Kurdish control. The ethnic balance of Kirkuk has been visibly changed by the Kurdish influx.
We detected a clear difference in approach between the KDP and PUK. The KDP leaders exude confidence that they can survive nicely on their own; their attitude is that Baghdad has to make them an attractive offer if it wants their cooperation. The PUK is much more committed to working out a solution with Baghdad. The reason is simple: as their ministers told us, without funds from the center, the PUK would be broke within a few months. However, if things in the south begin to go south, even the PUK will be tempted to pull up the drawbridge.
Turning to the Shi'ite community, at the time of our visit there was an almost universal conviction in the CPA that the Shi'ites would work with the United States; we met no one in the CPA who was worried about implications of a Shi'ite-dominated government. There was also a widespread conviction in the CPA that when the Shi'ites vote, secular voices will prevail. CPA officials told us several times that Ayatollah Sistani is more powerful in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post than he is in Iraq. And we heard from several mainstream Shi'ite clerics that this time, the Shi'ites will not miss their opportunity for power. As one Shi'ite cleric put it, "the United States is now our mother," and they must look to it for guidance and help.
Nonetheless, the emergence of radical Shi'ite politics, personified by Muqtada as-Sadr, has put some of these assumptions in doubt. His popularity may be very limited, but he has a dedicated following. As of this writing, he is locked in a showdown with the United States in Najaf. The episode has demonstrated that while the traditional leadership in Najaf reviles him, it has not been willing to confront him directly. Until Sadr loses a test of arms, he will remain a serious challenge. (An encouraging development is the rise of an Iraqi group opposed to him.)
In the short run, the pull of ethnicity, religion, and tribe will challenge the central government and could reduce it to negotiating with powerful local leaders who are largely autonomous, and who maintain and keep that autonomy by force. However disappointing that might be, it would be preferable to the reemergence of a powerful central government, tightly held by one small clique. That has been the pattern of modern Iraqi history, for a simple reason: massive oil revenues inflate the power of whoever controls the central government.
Such a scenario is still a possibility. No matter how democratic the wording of the new constitution, a newly elected leader could manipulate the system to stay in power indefinitely, relying on ethno-religious solidarity to consolidate control. Such a figure—a Saddam Hussein-lite—could come from any community, but his emergence would spell the defeat of prospects for democracy.
A major problem is that the United States lacks a detailed knowledge of Iraqi society. One group of U.S. officials described the woefully inadequate information they were given prior to arrival about the tribal structure in their area. These officials had to spend months constructing detailed genealogies and tracing out the complex interactions among the various tribes—months during which they had to feel their way blind among the bitter disputes between various sheikhs, each claiming to be paramount.
The ignorance is compounded by the security situation, which has kept CPA officials isolated in Baghdad. While the CPA offices in each province are a wealth of information, the CPA in Baghdad functions in a bubble called the "Green Zone," the coalition-maintained security perimeter around the CPA offices and living quarters. Americans can stay months without ever stepping outside it. Many of those we met in the Green Zone had yet to leave it; some officials did not have even a clue how visitors could get into the protected area from the "Red Zone," i.e., the rest of Baghdad. The isolation from ordinary Iraqis shows, and the Iraqis with whom we spoke resent it.
But to be fair to the CPA, even if those in Baghdad had more extensive interaction with Iraqis, it would still be difficult to collect information about Iraqi society. As two Iraqi sociology professors explained to us, Hussein strongly discouraged the study of Iraqi society; the subject was politically sensitive. Americans may be ignorant about Iraq, but Iraqis tend to know only their own very narrow slices of Iraqi reality. Everyone in Iraq is short of information.
The problem of inadequate information is most acute regarding the Shi'ite community. The United States is placing all its bets on the cooperation of the Shi'ites, and yet U.S. officials have only a vague sense of the dynamics of Shi'ite politics. Consider the role of Ayatollah Sistani. Many people claim to speak for him; everyone in the Shi'ite community is wrapping themselves in Sistani's flag, and yet they deliver very different messages. We saw and heard many examples of Muqtada as-Sadr, leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), GC members, and other forces claiming they were working to put Sistani's ideas into practice when in fact they were promoting their own agendas. And the same secular leaders who announce their great respect for Sistani, or the tribal leaders who swear fealty to Sistani, directly contradict him by saying that elections are way too complicated to be held soon, that the people do not understand democracy, and that there should be no elections for two years or more.
It is not at all clear that the CPA has a good sense how to maneuver through these shoals. To give one example, one senior Shi'ite cleric said he had warned J. Paul Bremer about allowing anyone to ask Sistani his opinion about the transition; this cleric pointed out that it is the obligation of a "source of emulation" (marja' at-taqlid) such as Sistani to answer any question put to him, no matter how secular or mundane the topic. So when the Americans asked Sistani for his opinion about the transition, he had to give it—even though this cleric claimed that Sistani was loathe to do so.
One thing is certain: the United States gets full blame for shortcomings but no credit for successes. Even those who are receiving substantial amounts of U.S. financial and political assistance generally treat it as their due as representatives of the new Iraq. But the United States is assigned full responsibility for all the shortcomings, including those that are caused by the new Iraqi government. For instance, we often heard that it was the U.S. responsibility to stop Decree 137, the proposed family law based on the Shari'a (Islamic law).
While many of the criticisms are exaggerated, the United States does bear responsibility for its slow delivery of aid. The U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq is drowning in red tape, and the $18.6 billion supplemental aid package has not kicked in. This situation will only become more complicated after June 30. There are widespread expectations that the new Iraqi authorities will want to exercise more control over reconstruction plans, but reconstruction could be slowed further if the new authorities insist on detailed reviews of the aid plans.
The U.S. and Transition
In the old politics of opposing Hussein, the U.S. role was clear: its job was to get rid of the dictator, and it did. In the new politics, the U.S. role is ambiguous. Is it Iraq's occupier or its ally? Will geopolitical interests or democratic idealism frame its future policy? These questions have yet to be answered, but the transition will necessarily dispel much of the fog.
The November 15 agreement between the CPA and GC made clear that the United States wants Iraqis to assume sovereignty as quickly as possible and set an ambitious timetable leading up to a June 30 handover. Nevertheless, no one seriously believes that the new Iraqi institutions will be ready to take full power by June 30.
The most obvious case is the security realm. It is clear that after June 30, just as before, Iraq will still depend on U.S. forces to do the serious fighting against the resistance. The new Iraqi army is being designed for border security, to keep it out of domestic politics. The Iraqi police are being trained and equipped to fight crime, not armed rebellion. The main job of fighting the resistance will fall on the poorly trained Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), a paramilitary unit roughly similar to the U.S. National Guard or to continental European gendarmes. But the ICDC and the police are locally recruited and live at home, meaning that at a minimum they are vulnerable to reprisals and at worst their ranks might be infiltrated by resistance elements. It seems that many join the ICDC and the police for the pay; their dedication is open to question. So the main job of fighting the resistance will fall to U.S. troops, and the job will be done at the discretion of U.S. commanders.
The deficit of the new Iraqi government in security matters is supposed to be counterbalanced by a political process. The November 15 agreement envisaged a tight timetable for writing a constitution and moving to a permanent government. It called for three elections in the eighteen months after June 30: (a) selecting delegates to the constitutional convention; (b) a referendum on the constitution; and (c) election of the new government (presumably a president as well as a legislature). Additionally, there are plans to hold local elections.
But holding elections at all will be a challenge. Few Iraqis are confident that the winners might be turned out later in another election, or see the process as a win-win proposition for all participants. The first elections therefore will be highly contested, and there is a real risk that whoever loses the elections may reject their very legitimacy, charging that the process was rigged by the Americans to favor the winners. (After all, sham elections are the norm in the region.)
Likewise, it will be a major problem to assure security on election days and even more so during campaign rallies. There is a real possibility that resistance attacks will intensify after the handover. It would only be rationale for the resistance to strike hard, precisely to show the new Iraqi government as a puppet of the United States, propped up by its military might.
These concerns explain what we heard from many Iraqis, and not only from the Kurds and persons claiming to speak for Sistani: take the extra time to get it right. They believe the United States is rushing the process, and for the least honorable of reasons: to get it done before the U.S. presidential election.
The United States is thus on the horns of a dilemma. By any objective assessment, the time is not right for the transfer of authority. But the United States faces a subjective reality: the latent fear of Iraqis that self-government could be deferred indefinitely, or perpetuated under guises familiar from the days of British indirect rule. For that reason—and that reason alone—there will be a transfer of sovereignty on June 30, whether Iraq is ready or not.
But that need not mean that the later dates, laid out for the subsequent months, should be accorded the same sanctity as June 30. Indeed, it would be appropriate for U.S. policymakers to cast the rest of the process as a kind of "road map," which lays out a preferred course but a flexible timetable. From our conversations with Iraqis, there is no doubt that they will loudly complain about delays and will privately thank the United States for prolonging the process. Even a protracted timetable is not a guarantee of success, but the compressed one laid out in the November 15 agreement is a guarantee of failure—one that will be laid at the door of the United States and that the United States can hardly afford.
Patrick Clawson is deputy director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.