Messy reality gives lie to hopes for a clean exit from Iraq

March 05, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - On Monday, after the approval of an interim constitution by the Iraqi Governing Council, one member proclaimed, "This is a great day in the history of Iraq, an unforgettable day."

Tuesday became unforgettable as well when suicide bombers at Shiite Muslim shrines killed well over 100 people.

The new constitution is advertised as laying the foundation for democracy, human rights and harmony among Iraq's contending groups. But it's hard to lay a foundation in a minefield, particularly when the mines keep detonating. Iraq is either on the verge of a new national unity or on the verge of a full-scale civil war. Take your pick.

The bad news is that even the good news isn't all that good. This constitution is not so much a framework for the future as a placeholder. Its chief accomplishment is to put off almost all the important decisions until later - when the United States will no longer be able to exercise a veto. The charter will also facilitate the American handover of power June 30, after which ... well, nobody really knows.

Not all, or even most, of the governing council members were as enthusiastic as the one quoted above. When it was time to meet with the press and explain the new document, the Kurdish and Shiite members were conspicuously absent, preferring not to defend their handiwork. Of the five representatives who did show up, four of them were longtime exiles.

It's true that the council reached compromises on divisive matters such as Kurdish autonomy (some but not as much as the Kurds want), the role of Islam in the new polity (it's deemed "a source" of legislation rather than "the primary source") and representation for women (they're assigned 25 percent of the seats in the national legislature, instead of 40).

But we shouldn't assume the final version actually resolves any of these issues. Next year, there will be a convention to write a permanent constitution, and everything will be on the table once again.

The disputants were able to overcome their differences mainly "because not reaching a deal on this temporary law would manifestly delay the return of sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30," says University of Michigan Middle East scholar Juan Cole. Why risk impeding the transition over a constitution that has the life expectancy of a fruit fly?

Since this is only a temporary settlement, everyone apparently decided to save their powder for the big fight next year. At that point, Iraqis will be free to do as they please - unless the Bush administration has the chutzpah to overrule elected Iraqi officials, in the name of upholding democracy.

None of these compromises answers the question of what will happen in Iraq after June 30, when the United States surrenders power to some Iraqi authority. What will the Iraqi authority look like? We haven't decided yet. We've had to scrap two plans because of Iraqi objections.

L. Paul Bremer III and Co. give the impression that the locals will wait patiently for the end-of-year elections, while the transitional regime collects the garbage and delivers the mail. But once Iraqis start wielding power, the conflicts that emerged during the constitutional deliberations could easily boil over. Those in the government will be jockeying to stay in power for the long term, while those out of power will be looking for ways to obstruct them. As Tuesday's attacks indicate, many of those out of power are already doing exactly that, in the most lethal way they can find.

The administration hopes that the tough part of our job will be over once someone else is in charge. But our troops won't be any safer just because Americans are no longer running Iraq. Without either an occupying authority or a popularly accepted Iraqi government, Iraq could suffer a power vacuum that violent groups will be eager to fill.

It's a recipe for anarchy, of which Iraqis are already getting a glimpse. And Americans will be right in the middle of it.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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