Giving the Iraqis the keys to their country

November 07, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - For the past six weeks, the news from Iraq has felt like the movie Groundhog Day. I get up each morning, fire up my Internet and read that a roadside bomb has killed another U.S. soldier. I search for any good news, but rarely find it. Lord knows, we desperately need a new movie, and not Apocalypse Now. The movie we need is Mr. Chips Goes to Baghdad.

Here's what I mean: There is much talk now about the need for "Iraqification" of the police and armed forces, so Iraqis can take over for U.S. troops. No question, this is necessary. But it's not sufficient. We could have 100,000 Iraqis in the police and army and it would not be enough - without one other person. We need an Iraqi leader (or a leadership council) elected as a result of an Iraqi constitutional or political process.

When you have an army and a police force, but no real legitimate government, it means that your army and police are always floating - unconnected to either a governing body above or to the people below. Security forces that are floating that way will never have the authority they need to keep order or crack down on retrograde elements trying to restore Baathist rule. The security forces must be anchored in an Iraqi political authority that is itself anchored in an Iraqi-written constitution.

This should be our drop-everything priority.

Imagine how different the U.S. position in Iraq would look to the world, to the American people and to the Arabs if President Bush could say, "Iraqis are now writing their own constitution, which will be the basis for elections, and we are in Iraq protecting that process until it's completed."

That is something Americans can understand and be proud of, and that is something that will make clear to the whole world that those people killing Iraqis and Americans today are really trying to kill the first popularly based constitution-writing process in the Arab world.

"But hey," you ask, "I thought that was what we were doing?" It is what we were doing, but the process got so bogged down, and the Baathist resistance so heated up, that it now looks as if we only have a military process in Iraq and no political process.

The reason this happened is that the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which is supposed to come up with a plan for forming the constitution-writing committee, is becoming dysfunctional. Several key GC members, particularly the Pentagon's favorite son, Ahmad Chalabi, have been absent from Iraq for weeks. Only seven or eight of the 24 GC members show up at meetings anymore.

The U.S. administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, needs to lock the 24 members of the GC in a room and not let them out until they produce a workable process for electing or appointing a constitution-writing committee. If they will not do that, then they should be bypassed and their powers devolved (which is happening anyway) onto the Iraqi Cabinet.

"Iraqis need to be running this country more than the Americans are letting them," says Hassan Fattah, editor of the Baghdad-based Iraq Today newspaper. "Let's remember something: This country had institutions, they badly needed reform, but it is not like people here don't know how to run things. Iraq was sort of like a country where people knew how to drive, but they were driving on the wrong side of the road. America needs to be the driving instructor, while we learn how to drive on the right side of the road. But America should not be the driver."

The more stake Iraqis have in running their own lives - through writing a constitution and by letting the ministers (and the GC, if it would get its act together) take the lead - the more the Iraqi army and police will be ready to protect that stake.

I repeat, yet again, Harvard President Lawrence Summers' dictum: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." Too many Iraqis still feel that they are renting their country, first from Saddam Hussein and now from us, so they aren't really washing yet.

We cannot just toss the keys to anyone, as France suggests. But we can insist - much more vigorously - that they begin the constitutional process that will produce a legitimate body of Iraqis to accept the keys and eventually drive off on their own.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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