The Iraqi Governing Council's Sectarian Hue

by Raad Alkadiri , Chris Toensing | published August 20, 2003

Passage by the UN Security Council of a resolution "welcoming" the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) reignited debate over the legitimacy of the body as a representative of the Iraqi people. The resolution, approved on August 14, 2003 by a vote of 14-0, with Syria abstaining, pointedly refrained from "recognizing" the IGC as a proto-government, saying instead that the council is "an important step" in the direction of an internationally recognized and sovereign entity. Syria, reflecting the position of the Arab League as well as Arab public opinion, views the IGC as a creation of US viceroy L. Paul Bremer rather than an institution representing Iraqis. In Iraq itself, there is no standard view of the council. Some think it is a first step toward indigenous governance. Others reject the council as an entirely unproven body made up disproportionately of formerly exiled groups that pushed "regime change" on the West throughout the 1990s and have very few constituents in the country. There is also a pronounced sectarian hue to opinions of the IGC—with Shiites more willing to give it a chance than Sunni Arabs.

The IGC certainly cannot be called a democratically constituted body. While Bremer did not unilaterally decree its composition, the council's 25 members were selected through negotiations between the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and a limited number of Iraqi political groups and personalities whom the US chose to recognize. The creation of the IGC revived the political fortunes of formerly exiled groups, particularly the Iraqi National Congress headed by Ahmad Chalabi, which were rapidly becoming marginal in the aftermath of the war, as the US discovered how little support they had among Iraqis. Chalabi and other exile figures will no doubt continue to assert claims of legitimacy that outstrip reality.

It is far from clear that the UN's grudging "welcome" to the Iraqi Governing Council, issued a full month after Chalabi and fellow council members Adnan Pachachi and Aqila Hashimi traveled to New York to request recognition, will hasten Iraq down the road to a sovereign, indigenous government. The resolution is better understood as fulfilling the Bush administration's need for good news about the Iraq reconstruction and political transition process, which, as in so many other areas, has not lived up to the confident pre-war predictions. But, in the long term, the greatest portent of the IGC could lie elsewhere. By insisting that IGC membership rigidly adhere to Iraq's sectarian and ethnic demographics, Bremer and the occupation authority have explicitly made these issues the fundamental organizing principle of government for the first time in Iraq's history.

Group of Seven

The creation of the Iraqi Governing Council illustrates the occupation authority's efforts to respond to Iraqi grievances and to isolate groups resisting its presence. The 25-person council, which met for the first time on July 13, was intended to signal that the US and Britain are devolving political power quickly to Iraqis, in an attempt to deflect local criticism of their performance in restoring security and basic services like electricity and water. Bremer originally aimed to establish a purely advisory committee, but opposition from most Iraqi political parties and groups—including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani—combined with the deteriorating security situation convinced him to revise his initial plan.

Bremer negotiated the formation of the IGC with a number of political players, but he chose to give overwhelming primacy to the views of the main pre-war opposition parties and their allies, the so-called "Group of Seven," most of whom were outside Saddam-controlled Iraq during the last two decades of war and sanctions. In addition to the Iraqi National Congress, his interlocutors included SCIRI, the more liberal wing of the Shiite al-Dawa Party, the Iraqi National Accord headed by Iyad Allawi, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Pachachi, foreign minister of the government overthrown by the Baath Party in 1968. To protect their newfound clout, some of these parties worked hard to block figures who had remained in Iraq throughout Saddam Hussein's rule from getting seats on the council. SCIRI is reported to have demanded a veto over prospective members as a condition of its membership.

Beyond a broad commitment to federalism, the political visions of the Group of Seven have little in common. Opening statements from IGC members also betrayed deep-seated differences over the ongoing relationship with the US-British occupation, with SCIRI's representative Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim calling for a quick evacuation of foreign troops while Chalabi lauded the US role as liberator of Iraq. Tensions between the parties, and between the former exiles and those representatives from inside Iraq, will linger, and internal battles have already bedeviled the council's few substantive deliberations.

Dubious Independence

The IGC has been granted some executive powers, probably more than Bremer would have liked, including oversight of the national budget and selection of Iraqi ministers and diplomatic representatives abroad. Thus far, however, the council's proceedings are hidden from public view, sharpening Iraqi suspicions that it has paltry authority in practical terms and that its core political groups are no more capable of working together now than they were when in exile. Its main achievements to date have been to establish subsets of itself, first with the creation of a nine-member executive body in late July, and subsequently setting up security, finance and other sub-committees. Unable to agree on one leader, the IGC decided that the presidency of the executive will rotate monthly in Arabic alphabetical order, beginning with al-Dawa head Ibrahim Jaafari. On August 12, the council appointed a national constitutional commission that, according to Jaafari, will "move with all segments of society to decide on the best mechanism" for the eventual design of an Iraqi constitution, which presumably would prepare the ground for national elections. But the relative secrecy of the commission's membership (it is known to include Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor and Chalabi strategist who was a vocal proponent of the war, and veteran Kurdish politician Sami Abd al-Rahman) and the absence of any clarity regarding its workings, underscores the IGC's lack of transparency and feeds Iraqi doubts about its independence of the CPA.

Indeed, while the IGC has nominal power to determine broad national policy guidelines, it has yet to do so in any meaningful fashion. Deliberations over who would lead the IGC highlighted the divisions among the council's members, and suggested that the constituent parties are driven as much by competition for power as they are by any long-term vision for Iraq. Indeed, beyond announcing the constitutional commission, the IGC has busied itself with internal debate and symbolic decisions. Even those have met resistance. The council's cancellation of the former regime's schedule of holidays, and its proclamation that April 9 (the date Baghdad fell) would henceforth be Iraq's national day, played to hosannas in the US press. But the news fell flat in Iraq: crowds in Baghdad marked July 14, the anniversary of the 1958 coup that toppled the monarchy, and the IGC was quickly forced to explain that April 9 would be just one of Iraq's national holidays after widespread unhappiness at the prospect of celebrating the occupation of the country.

Although it is early days, what the IGC has failed to do in the eyes of most Iraqis is to address the personal and economic needs of ordinary people—security, electricity and jobs, to name a few. A security committee set up under Allawi has been long on statements and short on action—beyond ensuring its own security. Like the CPA, the IGC operates from a building protected from its putative constituents by concertina wire and two US military checkpoints. After the August 7 bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, the council acquired a 120-man Personal Security Detail (and announced that its members would receive salaries of $4,000 per month, over ten times the sum received at present by technocrats running Iraq's various ministries).

State of Flux

Although its initial performance has been far from auspicious, it is still too early to pronounce the IGC a failure. Iraqi politics is in a state of flux. Given ongoing resistance to the occupation, the immense expectations of most Iraqis and the dearth of US strategic leadership in most areas, it is not surprising that the council has taken time to find its sea legs. True, the main IGC parties continue to act true to form, able to agree on very broad guidelines (notably that they should be the main power brokers in post-Saddam Iraq) and little else, but over time this could change. Faced with ever more executive responsibility, key groups within the IGC could coalesce to form an effective leadership. Already, technocratic council members less burdened by the baggage of exile opposition politics are showing signs of coming together in a coalition designed to counter the weight of the Group of Seven.

Ultimately, the IGC's success will depend on more than just its members' ability to overcome party politics. Equally important will be its relations with the CPA. There is no doubt who the real power in Iraq is at present. As Bremer comes under more and more pressure from Washington to deliver tangible signs of progress in Iraq, moreover, he may be less willing to engage in policy coordination with the IGC. Should this pattern emerge, the IGC will quickly come to be seen by large numbers of Iraqis as little more than a tool of the occupation, a development that could lead parties within the council to withdraw (tacitly if not explicitly) from its activities.

A second determinant is the willingness of the IGC to make tough decisions. The objectives outlined by the CPA in Iraq suggest that the population is set to face more rather than less economic hardship in the medium term, while Bremer moves ahead quickly with the downsizing of the public sector and the liberalization of the economy. Iraqis affected by these moves will add their voices to the already loud complaints about economic insecurity. Caught between the CPA and a more antipathetic Iraqi population, the IGC may be reluctant to associate itself with the unpopular policy decisions, perhaps trying to bolster its own rather limited social base through open opposition to Bremer. A more populist stance from the IGC will not help the process of reconstruction, but it could set up a nasty confrontation between the occupying powers and their chosen Iraqi representatives.

Bad Precedent

Even if the IGC can overcome these challenges, it will continue to pose a structural danger to Iraqi political stability—because of how it was created in the first place. Washington has always had an erroneous and very simplistic understanding of Iraqi politics and society, seeing it through the narrow prism of sectarianism and ethnicity. In doing so, US decision-makers have ignored the maze of socio-political identities in Iraq and the complexity of its society. Based on their misconceptions of Iraq, US officials—and the exiled Iraqi political groups they have sponsored—have advocated a political framework that would bring together representatives of the Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations in a federal structure reflecting the relative demographic strength of the three groups. This formula has found its expression in the IGC.

But in giving flesh to this view of Iraqi society, the CPA has created a bad precedent. The occupation authority has fundamentally altered the political balance of power in Iraq in favor of both the Shiites and the Kurds. Fourteen IGC members are Shiite—five of whom represent parties that are overtly sectarian—and a further five are Kurdish politicians who favor policies with a clear ethnic bias. Only four members are Sunni Arabs, and in contrast to their Shiite and Kurdish counterparts, none are members of organizations that espouse palpably sectarian or ethnic platforms. Indeed, popular religious Sunni leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Kubaisi in Baghdad, have been excluded from the council.

At the same time, the US propensity to equate Sunnis with Baathists and the latter with "Saddam loyalists," combined with the fact that most attacks on US forces have taken place in the "Sunni triangle," has meant that Sunni Arabs have borne the brunt of US counter-insurgency operations. All this has exacerbated fears among Sunni Arabs that they are being purposely marginalized, something that could encourage the community to organize on a sectarian basis in the future and to provide at least tacit support for violent resistance to the CPA. Observing this dynamic, the liberal Shiite intellectual Laith Kubba has written in the Financial Times that the IGC should expand its ranks to embrace members from the Sunni triangle. Otherwise, latent tensions between Sunni Arabs on one side, and the Shiites and the Kurds on the other, will be heightened, potentially laying the foundations for the "Lebanonization" of Iraq.

Unwittingly, Bremer and the CPA may have already started Iraq on the road to Lebanonization by composing the IGC according to a sectarian and ethnic calculus. A national election may have thrown up a similar result in terms of numbers, but the CPA is blind to the subtle distinction between the outcome of a popular vote and formal, external sectarian engineering of Iraq's first post-war governing structure. Debates over membership of the leadership committee, in which Shiite leaders also demanded a majority, suggest that the IGC will not be the only government structure founded on this sectarian-ethnic principle, and that the Shiites in particular will continue to demand a built-in majority in various state institutions. If the new cabinet, which the IGC has been debating throughout August, is also appointed with sectarianism tacitly or explicitly in mind, the fact will not be lost on most Iraqis. Sectarianism will not be the only factor determining interactions between political groups and the creation of future coalitions, but the CPA may have rendered it the most important factor for the time being.

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