Transfer of power in Iraq is no more than a cynical exercise in public relations

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, in 1853, that "you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." More than a century and a half later, George W. Bush is engaged in a desperate struggle to fool enough of the people enough of the time to control Iraq for long enough to secure the US’s interests, while also getting re-elected as president in November, against a backdrop of increasing criticism from all quarters. For all the Bush regime’s high-sounding claims to be committed to freedom and democracy, it is only thus that his current policies can be understood.

On May 24 the Bush administration published its draft resolution on the transfer of power in Iraq, which it hopes to get approved by the UN Security Council later this month, in order to legitimise its continuing hegemony over the Iraqi political process. The US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which is the real power behind the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), is due to hand "full sovereignty" over to an interim Iraqi government on June 30. This government –” whose form and composition have not yet been announced –” is supposed to oversee the preparations for elections to be held by the end of January next year. Even the language of this process betrays its hollowness; the "full sovereignty" that the US-led coalition is supposed to be handing back on June 30 has never, legally, been with them. Legally, sovereignty has always resided with the Iraqi people; only power has rested elsewhere. This is another example of Western politicians’ casual manipulation of the truth for political spin, and the routine failure of commentators and the media to correct them.

Even apart from such technicalities, however, the reality is that only the mechanics of power will change on June 30. Before the publication of the draft resolution, commentators pointed to certain key elements by which they would assess how much power the US’s plans will really transfer to the new government. This included control over Iraqi oil revenue, control over the coalition armed forces in Iraq, control over legal process and institutions, including the power to change the constitution, and control over Iraq’s borders and foreign relations. Because of the increasing political pressure on the US in Iraq, caused by Ayatollah Sistani’s initial rejection of the whole US plan, the fall-out of the US’s assault on Falluja in April, the on-going Shi’a uprising in the south, and the revelations about torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, the resolution probably grants more autonomy to the interim government than Washington originally intended to concede.

Since the publication of the draft, attention has focused on the issue of control of US and other armed forces in Iraq. The question that immediately arose was whether the interim government –” whatever form it will take –” would have ultimate say over military operations in the country; in particular, whether it would be able to veto future operations such as the US assault on Falluja in April, in which over a thousand people were killed before the US changed its approach and transferred the operation to an Iraqi brigade commanded by a former Ba’athist general. As is so often the case in Western politics, the response was to fudge the issue: to say different things to different people at different times; in other words, to try to fool everyone. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, faced with a sceptical British public, and perhaps also addressing Arab opinion, immediately said that the Iraqi government would have political authority over military strategy, although operational control would remain with military commanders. However, US officials, nervous about the US public thinking that their troops were under foreign control, immediately contradicted Blair. In this as in so much else for Western politicians, the reality is irrelevant ; the important thing is to be saying what your audeince wants to hear.

In fact the same can be said about the entire political process. Despite the impression being carefully cultivated by the US and its allies, including international institutions such as the UN, there is really no transfer of power taking place in Iraq. US officials have admitted as much when pressed. Discussing the Iraqi plans before a Congress Committtt on May 13, Marc Grossman, US undersecretary of state, admitted that "I’d say what we are talking about is limited authority." Secretary of state Colin Powell and the US’s proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, immediately clarified that "full sovereignty" would be transferred, but all the evidence is that Grossman’s analysis is closer to the truth.

To understand this, one needs to look not at the institutions and formalities of power, but at realities on the ground. Formally, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a popular political movement and an elected parliament; but no one doubts where the real power lay. The same can be said of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and many other Arab countries. This is the sort of political facade that the US intends to create in Baghdad, to disguise the fact that real power will continue to rest in a shadowy political infrastructure built for precisely this time. Asked what will happen if the Iraqi government wants to do something that the US doesn’t like, Powell replied bluntly "that’s why we will have an ambassador there."

John Negroponte, a senior ultra-conservative, has already been appointed ambassador to succeed Paul Bremer, who will leave on June 30. The functions currently performed by the CPA will be taken over by the US embassy, with Negroponte’s two deputies also having ambassadorial rank; interestingly, both James Jeffrey, currently ambassador to Albania, and Ron Newman, currently ambassador to Bahrain, have military backgrounds. The embassy will also take over a former palace used by Saddam Hussain, and convert a nearby building into a formal embassy for ceremonial functions. The embassy will take over many of the resources and personnel of the CPA; ultimately, however, it is expected to employ 1,300 US personnel and 2,000 Iraqis, compared with the 1,500 people currently employed by the CPA.

These personnel will be able to exercise the real power in Iraq, not only through political pressure on whatever Iraqi institutions are ultimately established, just as they currently put pressure on other Arab governments to do their bidding, but also through a network of low-key institutions that they are currently putting in place, which, in the word of the Wall Street Journal (May 13), "will give the US powerful levers for influencing nearly every important decision the government will make." Central to these levers will be a number of new commissions on key issues, created by Paul Bremer in a series of edicts earlier this year, effectively assuming the powers one would normally expect to be held by government ministries. The Wall Street Journal quoted the example of the communications commission, which has been granted authority to oversee all aspects of telecommunications in the country. This was put in place without Haider al-Abadi, currently in charge of Iraq’s ministry of communications, even being aware of it until he was asked about it by journalists. The members of the commissions were chosen by Washington, and are mainly American ‘advisors’. Similar commissions, whose members have been given five-year terms, have been established to run the police, the judiciary, the economic reconstruction of the country, and foreign affairs. The interim government will have no authority over these commissions, and its own tenure is only for 18 months. Whatever formal agreements are reached at the UN, there is no doubt where real authority in Iraq will lie.

Some Americans, particularly on the political right represented by the Bush administration, openly accept that they are building an empire in the Middle East, although it is not yet acceptable for politicians to say so, in terms of either domestic and international political opinion. The nature of the power structures being established in Iraq leaves no doubt that what the US is building is the equivalent of the sort of "indirect empire" that the British built in much of India and in other parts of the world. Then, the British officially had "treaties" with sovereign Indian rulers, and maintained the pretence that the Indian rulers were the real rulers, with British officers there as diplomatic representatives or advisors. In hindsight, with the need for political facades long removed, no one doubts that Britain ruled India as an imperial power, and that the so-called ‘princely states’ were no more than vassals. This is precisely the sort of independence and sovereignty that the US is now looking to grant Iraq; the question is whether Bush et. al. can fool enough of the people enough of the time to achieve their purposes.