UN secretary general Kofi Annan helped the US off a hook of their own making on February 19, when he announced that a UN fact-finding mission headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Iraq, had concluded that elections are not feasible in the country before the June 30 date set for the supposed handover of power to an Iraqi administration. On February 23, he suggested that elections would be possible by the end of this year, provided that two key conditions were met: a proper legal basis for the elections and an appropriate security situation. His clear implication was that the meeting of those conditions would be the responsibility of whatever local administration took over from the US in June, rather than of the US occupation administration.
The UN had been called into the political discussion to settle a disagreement between the US authorities and Ayatullah Sistani, the seniormost alim in Iraq. In November 2003 Paul Bremer III, the US viceroy in Iraq, outlined plans for an interim constitution and a national assembly to be established in time for formal sovereignty to be handed over by the end of June, so that Washington could claim in the run-up to the US presidential elections in November that ‘independence’ and ‘democracy’ had been restored to Iraq. In a process similar to that established in Afghanistan, Bremer proposed the establishment of 18 regional caucuses, vetted and overseen by US officials, to ‘elect’ members of a national assembly. These plans were ratified by the Iraqi Governing Council (IRC), a handpicked body of Iraqi leaders, but came under immediate attack from ordinary Iraqis, particularly leaders of Iraq’s Shi’a majority, backed by large demonstrations in the streets of towns in southern Iraq.
Sistani’s position represented a major challenge to the US plans, which it could not afford to ignore. Ignoring the demand risks alienating an already-hostile population; acceding to it would be a major concession that could cause additional problems in future, quite apart from the virtual inevitability that a genuinely elected national assembly would almost certainly oppose US interests in Iraq. To add to the Americans’ problems, Sistani also refused to meet with Bremer or other American officials to discuss the matter.
Hence the call for the UN to step in and defuse the situation, a major U-turn for Washington, considering its long-established opposition to any UN involvement in Iraq, for fear that it would tie American hands in dealing with Iraq as it sees fit. Annan dispatched a team to Iraq to assess the feasibility of holding elections by June 30, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi. This team constituted the most substantial UN presence in Iraq since the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August, in which US special representative Sergio de Mello and at least 20 other people were killed. No sooner had the UN been brought in, however, than US officials were saying openly that the UN’s real role was to do US’s bidding. The New York Times quoted one US official as saying that "We are trying to stick this issue in Kofi Annan’s lap and let him run with it… there’s a lot of pressure on Annan to come up with the right solution."
Even with the UN having legitimised the US’s refusal to permit elections before June 30, however, the US’s plans remain uncertain. Bremer’s plan for 18 regional caucuses appears to have been shelved after being widely criticised. A proposal that the IGC be expanded into a national assembly by the appointment of new members has also been dismissed as politically unacceptable; although it would be the easiest way of achieving the US’s goal of a malleable and cooperative Iraqi government, it lacks the necessary facade of popular legitimacy. How the US will choose to proceed remains to be seen, but ultimately it will almost certainly put its desire for a malleable, cooperative regime ahead of the need for a democratic facade.
The political situation is also complicated by the very different aspirations and demands of different Iraqi communities. The Shi’a majority generally accept the idea of establishing an Islamic state, though what precisely this would entail remains unclear. The Kurds remain determined to retain as much autonomy as possible. The Arab Sunnis (as opposed to the Kurds, who are also Sunni) fear the domination of any other party or nationality, while other minor communities, such as the Turkomen, are demanding guarantees of their representation and rights.
Although this fractured society poses problems for any government, it is also an opportunity for the US to ensure that the communities do not unite in opposition to the US occupation. The hope is that this will enable the US’s chosen elites to run the country on their behalf. It was noted that Ahmed Chalabi, the Bush administration’s favoured Iraqi opposition politician during the Saddam Hussein period, was given pride of place alongside Laura Bush when the president delivered his State of the Union address to Congress at the end of January. Clearly he remains central to the US’s plans, despite the fact that he has neither credibility nor constituency inside Iraq.
Sectarian issues were also raised by the US’s publication of a letter that was allegedly found in Iraq, and purportedly written by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, a well-known Jordanian-born Islamic leader who is active in Iraq. Zarqawi, whom the US have previously cited as evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and Usama bin Ladin, supposedly appeals for assistance from al-Qa’ida to foment a communal war between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq, as well as destabilising Iraq and bringing down the US administration.
In the mean time, US troops and their allies in Iraq remain under constant attack from opposition mujahideen. There is now increasing evidence that the US forces are deliberately sheltering behind the Iraqi police, who are bearing the brunt of attacks and suffering heavy losses. At least 15 Iraqi policemen were killed in Fallujah on February 14, when opposition forces attacked official buildings in a highly-coordinated operation. Hundreds of US troops based just 10 miles away failed to provide any assistance for several hours. Little wonder, then, that Iraqis have little confidence in their supposed liberators.