Involve Iraqis in postwar plans

January 28, 2003|By Fawaz A. Gerges

PRESIDENT BUSH told Iraqi opposition leaders at the White House recently that he favored a sweeping transition to democracy in Iraq and a brief military occupation after the expected toppling of Saddam Hussein.

While the Iraqi participants said they felt reassured by the president's commitment, they had emphasized the importance of creating an Iraqi political partner for the United States before Mr. Hussein's ouster.

But the Bush administration does not appear to share the opposition's urgency to immediately empower Iraqis to govern themselves. According to plans being finalized by Mr. Bush's security team for policing and democratizing Iraq after the overthrow of Mr. Hussein, Iraqis outside and inside the country are assigned a minor role.

Under these plans, as reported by The New York Times, the U.S. military would be the central player in running Iraq for at least 18 months, with a U.S. commander calling the shots. The proposals do not envision transferring power to an Iraqi-run government for several years. Obviously, the administration has little faith in the Iraqis' ability to close ranks and form a functioning, representative polity soon after their liberation.

To allay Arab fears that the United States seeks to be a colonial power in Iraq, The Times reported, U.S. officials plan to create an international civilian administration - not an Iraqi one - perhaps designated by the United Nations, to reconstruct the country.

Is this the most sensible way to convince Iraqis and other Arabs that the United States doesn't want to subjugate them or control their oil? How can the United States democratize Iraq without Iraqis being in charge of the democratization process? Does the administration appreciate the intensity of internal opposition to its contingency plans?

These are not academic questions. They carry implications not only for the success of the American military-political effort to reconstruct a post-Hussein Iraq, but also for creating a democratic model for other Arab states to emulate.

For any U.S. effort to be regarded as legitimate by Iraqis and other Arabs, Iraqis must be treated as partners and play a vital role in their country's reconstruction, particularly in the management of its oil.

While U.S. officials are aware of the widespread conviction abroad that control of oil - not disarming Iraq - is the driving force behind U.S. policy, their plans reportedly envision raising revenues from oil sales not only for rebuilding Iraq but also for defraying some of the costs of the military occupation. Although last week Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed that oil will be used to benefit Iraqis, he did not deny reports, Newsweek said, about using oil money to pay for administration and occupation costs.

This action would reinforce charges of U.S. imperialism in the world of Islam. Many Iraqis would be embittered and would view the United States more as a mercenary than a liberator, thus sowing the seeds of misunderstanding and potential resistance.

U.S. officials don't seem to appreciate that democracy cannot be brought to Iraq by an outside power. Only Iraqis, with international assistance, can transform their country. Despite its half-hearted measures to prop up the Iraqi opposition (the United States has just begun the military training of some opposition fighters), the administration seems unwilling to create a transitional Iraqi government with real authority.

Divisions within the administration, coupled with the fragmentation of the Iraqi body politic and Mr. Hussein's brutal rule, have worked against the formation of a united opposition front inside and outside Iraq. Nevertheless, Iraqi opposition groups, who bickered during their conference in London last month, did compromise and passed resolutions that stress power-sharing.

The United States, along with the United Nations, the European Union and Iraq's neighbors, can facilitate the birth of a new Iraq by helping Iraqi opposition groups strengthen their cooperation and build alliances with their various communities at home, including the tribes and the armed forces.

This is not wishful thinking. Recent developments appear to have unsettled the Iraqi regime and showed the Iraqi people how weak it is. The continued U.S. military buildup is bound to encourage army officers and tribal chiefs to find a way to shield their country from the perils of the coming war. If they cannot rise up on their own, they might be disposed to form an alliance with an active, mobilized opposition, publicly supported by the international community, including the Arab states, to remove Mr. Hussein from power. This formidable alliance would serve as a core of the new Iraqi government.

Now is the time for the Bush administration to show by deeds that it is committed to helping Iraqis lead the way in reconstructing and transforming their own country. After all, this is their future, their destiny, their responsibility.

Fawaz Gerges holds a chair in Middle East studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He is author of America and Political Islam: Clash of Interests or Clash of Cultures? to be published by Cambridge University Press.

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