Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute on February 26, 2003, George W. Bush invoked the examples of Germany and Japan to underline that, the United States would leave behind in Iraq “an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom.” After the March invasion, the US toyed briefly with a quick handover of power to returning Iraqi exiles before realizing that hardly any of them could lay claim to the title of “local leader.” By May, the US had decided that its mission of bringing “an atmosphere of safety” to Iraq required it to occupy the country militarily for an indefinite period. Increasingly, Bush administration officials justified the ongoing occupation as the midwife of “lasting institutions of freedom.”

One might argue that the Bush administration dug its own policy grave by proclaiming so piously its intent to transform Iraq into a democracy. One might also argue that the absence of evidence of the former regime’s alleged non-conventional weapons forced the administration into insincere rhetorical zeal for a democratic Iraq. In reality, the rhetoric was sincere — even if the Bush administration’s understanding of “democracy” is different from that of many Iraqis. Yet strategic incompetence in post-war planning and fundamental misunderstanding of Iraqi society created facts on the ground that rendered all the good will of — and toward — the US for building democracy irrelevant.

Strategic incompetence produced three crises — of information, international isolation and security — that conspired slowly to reduce US ambitions of governance in Iraq from democratization to consensual advisory representation to mere stabilization. These three crises increasingly isolated the occupying authorities and its proxy Iraqi institutions from the Iraqi people, until the gap between declared goals of freedom and democracy and reality became unbridgeable. When the general political mood in the country soured, the US-sponsored Iraqi institutions failed to take control because they lacked the legitimacy to intervene. In response, the US fell back on brokering regional deals with the powers that be in Erbil, Falluja, Najaf and Sadr City. Local events and dynamics — in city councils and in the provinces — are key to understanding how the US botched its occupation of Iraq and what turn the country may take following elections scheduled for January 2005.

“Let Freedom Reign”

From the beginning, two significant problems faced the US and its fellow occupying power Britain: how to govern and how to exit.

Governance and exit strategy are closely related. On one hand, the more heavy-handed the US exercise of power in Iraq, the greater the risk of leaving behind an Iraqi government of dubious legitimacy and staying power. On the other hand, if the US simply endorsed whoever won Iraqi power struggles while limiting its own activities to patrolling the country, then it would run the risk of leaving behind a new strongman, an Islamist theocracy or internal strife and possibly a breakup of the country. In the event, the occupation has been both a mix of and the middle ground between the hands-off and the hands-on approaches. It combined a mix of forceful US declarations from the Republican Palace in Baghdad with occasional rubber-stamping of local authorities by US commanders, even when those authorities were undemocratic, Islamist or ex-Baathist. Because it had not deployed enough troops for direct rule, the US sought middle ground by working through Iraqi proxies and, eventually, submitting to international pressure to make the UN a sort of appendage to the occupation. In the end, the Americans used Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general’s special advisor on Iraq since February 2004, to devise a way out of the expanding catastrophe.

The June 28 transfer of “sovereignty” to an appointed Iraqi cabinet was a low point in the occupation authority’s already undistinguished record of governance. As an exit strategy, the handover, conducted as a cloak-and-dagger operation two days ahead of the scheduled ceremony, was just one rung up the ladder from “cutting and running.” Only a partial US climbdown on the issue of operational control of its nearly 140,000 soldiers in Iraq produced a compromise at the UN Security Council and with the Iraqi Governing Council. Brahimi sold the transition well, especially in obtaining a grace period for the interim cabinet from Iraq’s most powerful voice, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in return for solemn promises of democratic elections within six months. Yet the UN envoy’s original suggestions for cabinet appointments were abandoned in a last-minute deal between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the inner circle of Iraqi proxies displaying the right attitudes for assuming power. Ghazi al-Yawir, a leading Sunni member of Iraq’s largest tribe and a returned exile, was appointed president, while a leading secular Shi’a and former Baathist intelligence officer, Iyad Allawi, also returned from exile, was appointed prime minister.

Bush reacted to the news of the June 28 handover by scrawling the words “Let freedom reign” on the note handed to him by an adviser. The handover remains an incomplete exit strategy, however given the continued presence of US troops and the still unfulfilled promises of a democratic Iraq. A second, and perhaps a third, transition, including elections and a constitution, will be necessary to fill the gaping void of local Iraqi institutions through which the government can rule and on which society can rely. Without such legitimate institutions of the state, Iraq could well become what non-proliferation experts, anti-terrorism warriors and democracy missionaries fear most: a failed state where impunity rules and no one holds a monopoly of force.

Insular and Obstinate

The CPA, now dissolved, was notoriously insular in its palace faubourg, unable to communicate to, let alone with, the Iraqi people following the abolition of the Ministry of Information in June 2003. Irregular and insufficient information fed the rumor mill and constricted the spaces where Iraqis could discuss their preferences for their own governance with the occupation authority. The US had bombed the television tower and telephone exchange in Baghdad, leading to a virtual communications black hole. Continuing electricity shortages further reduced the value of television as an information medium, although Bremer began scarcely watched weekly television addresses soon after his arrival. In a political culture where a premium is placed on personal meetings, the dilapidated telephone system and the insecurity on major roads did not help the CPA, either. An Iraqi adviser to the Governing Council summed up his exasperation: “We spend most of our time just getting from one place to the next!” CPA negotiations accordingly assumed an air of secrecy. Discussions for the creation of an Iraqi governing body in June 2003 and, again, in May 2004, for example, raised deep suspicions about American motives. Recent returnees from the formerly exiled opposition, now sitting on the Iraqi Governing Council, also took few measures to reach out to the Iraqi people. Several months after the fall of Baghdad, the US civilian administration and its Iraqi proxies were still largely concentrated in that city. The people in the provinces, with the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has established media, were left in the dark. To those Iraqis, patrolling soldiers were the face of the occupation.

Meanwhile, UN Security Council Resolution 1483, passed in May 2003, relegated the UN to a subsidiary role. According to a high-ranking UN diplomat, the US scoffed at French plans for an early return to Iraqi sovereignty and, later, snubbed Russian and German initiatives calling for an international conference on Iraq’s future similar to the Bonn gathering on Afghanistan in 2001. International reticence in the face of America’s continued troubles in Iraq and US obstinacy toward internationalizing the conflict meant that the pledges of support at the international donors conference in Madrid in October 2003 did not translate into support on the ground. In Iraq, it seemed, either you were with the US or you were against it. For Iraqi provinces, this meant further exclusion from political processes. Only those with good standing with the US or with significant networks and resources could play the political game in Baghdad. The US was therefore predestined to fail as a mediator in efforts at Iraqi national reconciliation.

Chronic insecurity inflicted the most damage on US democracy-building plans. Put simply, the US never won the political part of the battle it started in March 2003. After the fall of the regime, looting was well-organized, as were the initial sporadic acts of resistance. Not until the summer, three months after the war, did insurgent groups claim responsibility for attacks, indicating that the early resistance was largely a hangover from the war. The full history of the composition and motivation of the Iraqi insurgencies has yet to be written. It seems near certain, though, that Arab jihadis, former regime members, who may or may not be Saddam loyalists, and dispossessed Shi’a have all been involved. Violent attacks against personnel, symbols, proxies and reconstruction efforts of the US occupation in Iraq are supported or tolerated by a substantial and increasing minority, if not a majority, of Iraqis. [1]

By all accounts, Iraqis welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The tolerance for continued violence and anarchy therefore represents a change in the national mood. The insurgency is diverse and localized, [2] and for many months, insurgents did not seek to liberate territories. These facts support the hypothesis that Iraqis’ growing alienation from the occupation, rather than their effective intimidation by the insurgents, explains the mood shift. Much has been written about two cardinal errors of Bremer’s which poured oil onto the flames of the resistance: radical de-Baathification and the dissolution of the Iraq army. US counterinsurgency tactics — disproportionately punitive raids, air strikes, house searches and the arbitrary arrests that culminated in the Abu Ghraib scandal — also played a part in the alienation of Iraqis. A third source of alienation was the CPA attempt to dictate the terms of Iraqi participation in the polity of the future.

Legitimacy Deficit

The occupation’s legitimacy deficit can be traced to two trends in national and local governance. Instead of holding free elections, the US appointed national and local councils to govern at its behest. Instead of nurturing the popular legitimacy of these councils, the occupation authority opted for representational formulas based on the sectarian and ethnic composition of the country.

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus established the model for the first US efforts at local governance in the northern city of Mosul in May 2003. Petraeus invited the dignitaries of Mosul, including judges, health workers, teachers, businessmen, and tribal and religious leaders, to convene in professional caucuses to select a city council. [3] This council, which initially did not include women, agreed prior to the caucuses that certain positions and proportions of seats would go to each of the city’s communities of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis. [4] Some political parties managed to place candidates in the council through the professional caucuses, but otherwise they held little influence over city affairs. This council’s appointed head, the governor, was the primary interface between the occupation forces and the population. [5]

When Bremer took charge of the occupation authority, he abandoned his predecessor Lt. Gen. Jay Garner’s hinted plans to turn over the reins to favored Iraqi exile groups. Expatriate Iraqis who had come into the country as expert advisers to the invaders were quickly reduced to interpreters. [6] The American proconsul reluctantly agreed to establish an Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) with advisory powers, partly composed of the former exiles, in July 2003. The IGC helped the US to secure pledges of international assistance at the Madrid donors’ conference in October, and, though it fell far short of being a successful Iraqi governance body, it also had its domestic uses for the Americans. Its members appointed ministers in September, greatly alleviating the CPA’s task of governing by proxy. But Bremer brooked little dissent from the IGC politicians when they proposed an enlargement of the council to include other important representatives of religious and political trends, [7] and when their constitutional preparatory committee, which Bremer had ordained, foundered on the opposition of Sistani. Another of Bremer’s first acts was to cancel scheduled local elections in Najaf, for fear that they would empower elements unfriendly to the US project. [8] Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main factions were inching toward merging their separate administrations and holding elections for a regional parliament before the war, but promises of elections were cut short once the CPA arrived. [9] In Basra, British CPA officials were open about their disappointment that Bremer himself had canceled their plans to hold ration card-based district elections. Islamist parties in Basra did not take well to the news and promptly organized their own elections, forcing a standoff with the British. While a secular party spokesperson dismissed the Islamists’ efforts as undemocratic because they were poorly organized, barred women and were held in mosques, the British nevertheless conceded to creating a “virtual” neighborhood, whose representatives would be the elected leaders. Disappointed, the Islamists began to vie for control of the entire city. [10]

A major blunder at the national level was the sectarian-ethnic formula used to establish the Iraqi Governing Council and allocate posts in the ministries. [11] This maneuver rendered sectarian and ethnic affiliation the organizing principle of Iraqi politics for the first time, and strengthened centrifugal communal forces at the local level. In Kirkuk, the US commander assigned seats on the city council by dividing them proportionally among the city’s ethnic groups. Although this system has been credited with preventing Kirkuk from slipping immediately into civil war, Kirkuk’s council has seen bloc votes and walkouts that have frozen the council’s work. In April 2004, the Turkman and Arab groups jointly suspended their membership for several months. In other cases, the CPA more or less randomly added minorities — such as a Sunni in mostly Shi’i Arab Nasiriyya — to enhance the councils’ representativeness. Although they have been partially successful in Kirkuk, many Iraqis see the sectarian and ethnic quotas as an undemocratic measure imposed by the Americans without a genuine civic dialogue about representation of minorities and protection of different ideologies, such as secularism. As a result, communal power sharing in Iraq is currently by American fiat, not by consensus.

Building Blocks of Stability

Adherence to the Mosul model, moreover, encouraged a top-down approach to local governance. All across Iraq, the US moved to set up councils in provincial capitals, in some cases opting to recognize existing councils that appeared spontaneously after the war or were organized by Kurdish and Shi’i religious parties in the northern and southern parts of Iraq. In Kirkuk, two rival councils declared themselves in charge before the arrival of the Americans. In Kut, followers of Shi’i cleric Kadhim al-Ha’iri, took over official buildings in mid-April 2003. In Ba’quba, a mixed Sunni-Shi’i city north of Baghdad, and Majar al-Kabir, a small southern town, officials of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq took over local control after their Badr Brigades had fought its way into or simply entered Iraq from Iran. Existing governance structures in Ba’quba and Kut are the result of shaky compromises between the US and the local forces. But following the establishment of city councils, few lower-level neighborhood or district councils were established until December 2003.

From the beginning, the US-appointed local councils faced their own legitimacy deficits. Some Iraqis rejected the councils because they are appointed or self-selected, rather than democratically elected. Many other Iraqis simply refuse to acknowledge that these bodies represent them because they were set up at the instigation of the Americans.

The focus on the educated middle class encouraged by the Mosul model failed to win the support of the large numbers of disenfranchised urban poor. In the end, outside Baghdad, the occupation authorities used the local councils as proxies through which to gather information, project power and, at the same time, devolve responsibility for governance to Iraqis and create building blocks of a stable internal order.

But the new council members were not experienced in government administration and had no staff or budgets. They were unable, on the whole, to carry out reconstruction projects aside from small tasks in cooperation with the military and CPA, which held the purse strings. The councils were neither linked to one another nor to the Baghdad ministries that had controlled their budgets under the old regime. The foremost result was slow reconstruction. Occupation authorities did not take advantage of the opportunity to rehabilitate the dilapidated electricity, water and irrigation infrastructure at the local level. In the absence of improvements in material conditions or responsive local Iraqi officials or coalition commanders to whom to turn for help, Iraqis began to turn hostile toward the occupation. [12] Demonstrations for salaries, jobs and electricity in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in December 2003 were early indicators of the mood shift. The stalling of reconstruction efforts and the exclusion from power of those first on the spot — Islamist parties, for the most part — created a vacuum at the local level that the military and its appointed proxies could not readily fill. Instead, both reconstruction efforts and political opposition turned to broad-based popular movements affiliated with Islamist parties.

Rather than encourage “democracy” — the rule of elected representatives for the benefit of citizens — the US chose to constitute “representative” bodies according to certain procedures and quotas for the purpose of stabilizing Iraq politically. Representative of Iraq’s diversity, but not its people’s wishes, the local councils floated in a policy and power vacuum between the Iraqis they were supposed to represent and their US overlords.

Baghdad First

By accident, Baghdad proved a partial exception to the CPA’s model of local governance. Baghdad’s mayors held ministerial rank under Saddam Hussein and controlled the municipal budget; elsewhere in Iraq, the national ministries set the budget. Baghdad houses about one fourth of Iraq’s population and is said to be among the world’s most sprawling metropolitan areas. The credo of “Baghdad First” that captured the CPA’s hope of producing a democratic domino effect throughout Iraq flowed not only from the historical administrative autonomy of the capital but also from the resources — CPA, military and NGO — amassed there. Beginning in May 2003, the First Armored Division and other divisions, together more than 39,000 soldiers, spread the word over loudspeakers and in face-to-face interactions that Baghdadis should convene at predetermined times to select neighborhood leaders. The soldiers operated under the guidance of the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a think tank that had won the contract from the US Agency for International Development to provide assistance in local governance.

Over the course of several months, the military formed 88 neighborhood councils. In a bottom-up approach not replicated in the provinces, these lower councils selected members of district councils who in turn formed a Baghdad city council. Members included Iraqis of all political stripes. Some vented their fury at Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime, while others were hangers-on of that regime. Still others were religiously motivated and had naturally settled into official positions after having worked informally to restore order, security and basic services in the immediate aftermath of the war. Many of these leaders were never integrated into the “Baghdad First” vision.

In Shu’la and Sadr City, two poor Shi’i neighborhoods comprising perhaps half of Baghdad’s population, popular councils had formed spontaneously following the fall of the regime. In Shu’la, the council consisted of religious men, some of whom were accused by the CPA of having been informers for Hussein’s security services. In Sadr City, representatives of the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gathered male heads of households to elect a district council following the fall of the regime. Nevertheless, the US military, together with RTI, attempted to install councils following the example set by Petraeus in Mosul.

In Sadr City, however, the “elected” council did not cooperate with the occupying forces. Only a long standoff and protracted negotiations led to the disbanding and integration of the Sadrist council. Sadrist representatives repeatedly did not show up for meetings of the all-Baghdad city council and other functions convened by the occupation authority. Further setbacks occurred when a US helicopter crew tore down a banner inscribed with the name of Muqtada’s uncle Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in August and when US soldiers shot dead “their” council’s leader, Muhannad Kaabi, in November. [13] These events were part of the background of the eventual decision of the Sadrists to take up arms against the occupiers in April 2004 and again in August.

Dead Letter

In the fall of 2003, the US-led occupation arrived at a crossroads. At the national level, the attempt to install pliant allies to whom to hand off a democratic Iraq had come to naught. At the local level, the US military had sometimes installed new councils and sometimes sanctioned already existing ones. But the military-appointed councils did not speed up the sluggish pace of reconstruction, and Iraqi politics turned increasingly toward demands for salaries, jobs and elections. Meanwhile, attacks on US and other occupying soldiers shot up dramatically in frequency and lethality. The Bush administration summoned its proconsul to Washington to hammer out a more concrete exit strategy — one that, incidentally, paid more attention to local Iraqi politics.

Bremer returned from the emergency talks in Washington with an accelerated plan for transition to Iraqi self-rule called the November 15 agreement. The agreement’s central feature was a system of provincial caucuses. Under the plan, in each province five members of the IGC, five members of the provincial council and a member of each of the five largest city councils were to form a 15-person organizing committee. This committee would then oversee the vetting of candidates for a provincial caucus. This caucus, in turn, would select a number of delegates proportionate to the province’s share of the national population to a newly formed interim national assembly. The national assembly would then select a government, which would form a cabinet and prepare elections for a constitutional assembly.

Within two weeks of the announcement of the November 15 agreement, many observers already viewed it as a dead letter, due to the objections of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani renewed his call for direct national elections. But the reason the caucus plan failed in Iraq has as much to do with how it was hatched and presented as with Sistani, who merely raised the loudest voice of opposition.

Outside Baghdad, the November 15 agreement was scarcely discussed. CPA outreach was limited to distributing leaflets summarizing the agreement’s main points (after Sistani’s damning objections were known) and organizing roughly a dozen town hall meetings that reached perhaps 10,000 Iraqis. Provincial officials received Arabic translations of a summary of the agreement — minus any request for their input. But almost all Iraqis, once they heard about the plan, had the same reaction: they rejected the imposed solution because of the arbitrary composition of the organizing committee. Many felt that the caucus system was designed to ensure that those Iraqis appointed by the US to national or local positions of power would continue to escape the necessity of seeking a popular mandate. Other questions remained unresolved: could organizing committee members stand for election in the caucuses? Would there be a limit to the number of participants in the caucuses?

As an exit strategy for the US, the caucus plan had some merit. It focused on local representatives who would have to undergo vetting at the local level before joining a national assembly. Furthermore, since the national assembly would in effect vote in a government, no one would be able to say that that government was US-imposed. It seemed possible to break the cycle of illegitimacy via caucuses while avoiding direct elections. But the plan also contained serious shortcomings. Its timetable for transition seemed to conform more to the schedule of the US presidential election than to Iraqi concerns. The UN rightly called it cumbersome, not so much because of the various steps involved, but rather because of deep suspicion about the involvement of the CPA, the IGC and US-appointed councils (the word caucuses also proved untranslatable into Arabic).

The idea of caucuses never caught on with Iraqis both because it was an imposed CPA directive and because it was poorly explained. By the time the caucuses were formally consigned to the dustbin in February 2004, the only developments at the local level had been the hasty creation of “missing” councils by the CPA to fulfill the requirements of the November 15 agreement for one provincial, and at least five city councils, in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces and the “refreshment” of existing councils in order to purge them of accused Baathists and make them slightly more representative.

No Local Elections

Sistani is the lone major player who has consistently advocated general elections. The Pentagon-dominated CPA was downright disdainful of elections, while the UN and think tanks discouraged them as premature, and the former exiles on the IGC feared that elections would expose their lack of popular support. Even before the invasion, the Iraqi opposition, judging by the Future of Iraq Project report whose preparation was supervised by the State Department in 2002, saw no role for early national elections. Nor have all the political forces in Iraq embraced national polls. Sunni Arab parties, in particular, have rejected the idea of elections under occupation. Some Kurds favored a delay until a constitutional arrangement for the status of Iraqi Kurdistan could be agreed upon.

The same is not true of local elections, an idea that has been little debated. The Iraqi authors of the Future of Iraq Project report wrote in October 2002: “The holding of local elections within a period of not more than 12 months from the fall of the regime has many advantages. It will create genuinely representative local administrative authorities whose presence will complement the role of the Transitional Authority. It will introduce politics at the grassroots level and provide a trial run for the national elections, which follow at the end of the transitional period. And it will help expand the nucleus of potential political leaders in Iraq to encompass senior civil servants, professionals and technocrats who are not tainted by their past.” [14] One might add that local elections would have constituted a critical element in Iraq’s governance. The “administrative vacuum” and “political vacuum” which the report correctly predicted would have been quickly filled with legitimate and technically competent representatives of the people, thereby avoiding the situation created by the US military.

The arguments against elections do not stand up against the benefits. At the national level, established exile parties may indeed have enjoyed an advantage over newly founded parties, requiring some time to create a level playing field. This is less true of local elections, where even independent candidates often do well. Furthermore, the objections of Sunni Arabs and Kurds are groundless when it comes to local elections, where only limited exercise of power within limited territory is at stake. Minorities would retain a dominant presence at subsidiary levels of government and influence at higher, regional levels of government. The best example is the call by the Kurdish leadership for local elections while at the same time remaining skeptical toward national elections. Still others maintain that fair elections require an acceptance of common rules, which are hard to achieve within a short time. This difficulty, though, should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Eventually, electoral and party regulations will need to be drafted. Unlike national elections, in which equal representation demands uniformity of rules, local election laws can be flexible and negotiated more rapidly. What is more, the existence of the ration card database in Iraq, proven to be fairly accurate despite contentions to the contrary, would have greatly facilitated voter registration, one of the chief unresolved issues. At some isolated local elections that took place from January to April 2004, these ration cards were indeed used by the CPA. [15] Additional control for proof of voter eligibility according to the age and residency requirements was provided by neighborhood elders, identity or residency card documents.

The CPA’s decision not to support local elections had severe consequences for the legitimacy of the occupation and those who worked under it as well as for a transition to Iraqi rule. The abrupt appointment of a caretaker government by Brahimi and Bremer became necessary precisely because there were no legitimate subsidiary institutions to make these selections.

Iraqi Loya Jirga

The idea of a national conference to choose an interim national assembly predates the invasion of Iraq, and drew on the experience of Afghanistan. The international-Afghan meeting in Bonn in December 2001 and the emergency loya jirga inside Afghanistan in June 2002 served as guiding lights for the Iraqi opposition seeking to become a “government in waiting.” The London opposition conference in December 2002 adopted a program and a leadership council, and there was a more specific division of responsibilities at a meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan in February 2003, just weeks before the invasion.

The CPA shot down early calls for a national conference by the IGC, which was disproportionately made up of figures from the hoped-for “government in waiting.” In the autumn of 2003, the IGC again failed, when it proposed to enlarge its 25-person membership to become more representative.

At the same time, Iraqis had shown that they could organize on a national, or at least supra-regional level, forming Sunni religious alliances and a national alliance of “democratic parties,” and holding national women’s and tribal conferences since the winter of 2003. With an unremitting insurgency, some protagonists of which were known to be politically excluded, with the CPA stuck without an exit strategy after the death of the caucuses and with growing organization among Iraqis, Brahimi came to Iraq for the first time in February 2004. Sistani piled on the pressure for early national elections, but the UN rejected this possibility, and Washington maintained its insistence on an exit by June 30, despite the absence of a transition mechanism. The short timeframe prevented local elections from being held in the leadup to the transition, and hence the idea of a national conference assumed prominence once more.

The organization of such a conference was faced with resolving essentially the same questions left unanswered in the caucus system: who would oversee the selection of candidates to the conference and what rules would be followed in that process as well as in the process of self-selection to the smaller body of an interim national assembly to emerge from that conference? What powers would such an interim national assembly have and would the larger national conference have any future role, such as in measures of reconciliation, property restitution, rehabilitation and compensation?

Some Iraqis stressed the legitimizing element of holding such a conference before the transfer of sovereignty. If a new government were to be chosen from among Iraqis who were free to seek to join the conference, the measures taken by a new government could not be blamed so easily on the occupation. Brahimi, who had overseen the loya jirga in Afghanistan, was also keenly aware of the need to draw all actors in Iraq into political discussions, rather than leaving some with the option of choosing violence over negotiations and the accountability of public office. Neither the US nor the IGC, which was faced with imminent extinction, was comfortable with letting their last opportunity to shape Iraq’s future government slip away so easily. They persuaded Brahimi and, later, the Security Council to support a call for a national conference to be held in July, after the handover.

Both the timing and the unanswered questions caused the postponement of the conference at the last minute until mid-August. Because the timing effectively canceled the legitimizing effect of the conference, Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, the Arab Socialist Party, the Sunni Muslim Scholars’ Board and other prominent Iraqi intellectuals rejected an invitation. Former Iraqi diplomat Ghassan Atiyyah, a member of the preparatory committee for the National Conference, had sharp words for the secret deals over nominating delegates. In a memo printed by an Iraqi newspaper, Atiyyah noted that while half the 1,000 delegates would be elected from each of the governorates, roughly 150 persons would be nominated from political parties, including by the newly appointed prime minister, president and vice president. [16] The former members of the IGC, which disbanded upon nomination of an interim government in late May, defied the test of legitimacy not once or twice, but three times. Having been appointed by Bremer, they were now to receive an automatic place in the 100-member National Assembly, without having to be nominated or elected to the National Conference or elected by the conference delegates to this assembly. The assembly would have some powers of an interim parliament, such as approving, though not making, laws, budgets and ministerial nominations.

What Lies Ahead

A national conference is a very different affair from a local council with responsibilities for roads, sewage and security. Unlike in local elections, where competency usually trumps ideology, the formula of part elections, part selections may indeed have been conducive to achieving maximum representation. But strangely, that formula was a copy of the US and British attempts to create representative local councils: reserved seats for tribal leaders, men of religion, women, professional unions and political parties. Had Iraqis been given a chance at an exercise in democracy through local elections, such an absurd formula putting political parties on a par with tribal leaders and human rights organizations next to representatives of Iraq’s hierarchical Shi’i clergy could have been avoided. As it stands, both religious organizations and tribal clans and associations continue to provide governance outside the realm of the state. Sheikh Dhafer al-Obaidi is the primary arbitrator and decision-maker in Falluja. Muqtada al-Sadr’s “courts” dispense justice in Najaf, SCIRI’s Badr Organization and the Fudhala’ Association are actively involved in providing local services and Kurdish peshmerga are the bulwark of security forces in northern Iraq.

The disaffection of Iraqis with the few political parties with national name recognition [17] has not helped smaller parties gain a foothold, as Bremer argued in June 2003. The reason can be found in the neglect political party development received from the occupation authority’s approach to governance. The CPA never sought to regulate existing political parties, create a level playing field for emerging parties, or open up space for discussion on the rules governing local or national elections. The result has been politics behind closed doors, with the CPA imposing the terms not only of a transition, but also for constituting local and national political bodies. Instead of empowering Iraqi voters, leading parties, tribes and religious establishments are striking deals (or not) on how to divvy up power. This neither helps the common Iraqi in feeling represented, nor does it help to establish more legitimate centers of power for directing the badly needed reconstruction. Those who are left outside these arrangements have resorted to populist or violent means of opposition. They are also claiming a piece of the pie in most of Iraq’s provincial cities, to which the writ of the interim government and the US does not extend.

With roughly 140,000 US troops in Iraq, the US will not want more nasty surprises as preparations for national Iraqi elections get underway in the late fall of 2004. But the US may well be in for more surprises. The failure to focus on local, legitimate representation, whether through general local elections or high participation in caucus-style selections, may come back to haunt the US. As insurgent and opposition elements refuse to be drawn into national representation because they fear the outcome is preordained in favor of pro-US elements, the US-appointed institutions, both at the national and local level, will continue to struggle not only to govern day to day, but also to prepare for general elections in which more factions of the government will lose than win. The second transition, through general elections in January 2005, may well collapse amid speculations of manipulation. But without elections, there will be no third, constitutional transition by the end of 2005 either.


[1] Gallup, “Iraqis View Visible Cooperation With CPA as Potentially Fatal,” May 25, 2004.
[2] One study making this point is Ahmed Hashim, “The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq,” Middle East Institute Policy Brief, August 15, 2003.
[3] Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2003.
[4] Interview with Khosrat Goran, deputy governor of Mosul, January 2004.
[5] Interview with Raad al-Fakhri, Iraqi National Accord chief, Mosul, January 2004.
[6] Isam al-Khafaji, “I Did Not Want to Be a Collaborator,” Guardian, July 28, 2003.
[7] Interview with Mahmoud Othman, former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, Baghdad, February 2004.
[8] Washington Post, June 28, 2003.
[9] Interview with senior CPA official in Erbil, January 2004.
[10] Interviews in Basra, February 2004.
[11] Raad Alkadiri and Chris Toensing, “The Iraqi Governing Council’s Sectarian Hue,” Middle East Report Online, August 20, 2003. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero082003.html
[12] Washington Post, July 4, 2004.
[13] Washington Post, November 11, 2003.
[14] Future of Iraq Project, Final Report on the Transition to Democracy in Iraq (November 2002). On file with the author.
[15] Washington Post, February 16, 2004. Ration cards were used in Najaf sub-district elections on February 17, 2004 as well as in numerous other locations for lower-level councils.
[16] Al-Manara (Basra), July 18, 2004. [FBIS translation] [17] Oxford Research International, March 15, 2004.

How to cite this article:

Christoph Wilcke "Castles Built of Sand: US Governance and Exit Strategies in Iraq," Middle East Report 232 (Fall 2004).

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