Monday, June 14, 2004

The new transitional Iraqi government can stabilize and lead the country to national elections if it is allowed to be a government of the people, and if it receives the political, financial and military support of the international community and the United States.

Make no mistake; this is the last chance to avert a failed state in Iraq. It is in the interest of the Iraqi people that this government succeeds. And it is in the interest of the United States and the international community as well.

International players and the United States need to work with the new transitional government to empower it rather than with the power centers that lie outside the government. And they need to resist meddling in Iraqi political affairs.

The initial reaction of the Iraqi people to the newly appointed government was quite welcoming. They are willing to give it a chance and see it as a first step toward a possible democratic, pluralistic and federal Iraq.

There are high expectations of this government. Naturally, they will not be able to fulfill all of the people’s demands, and this eventually may have a negative impact on the way the people view it.

To minimize that impact, the government needs to be seen as the government of the people, by keeping them abreast of its decisions and activities through a solid public-relations campaign. It must be as transparent as possible with the public and must be as responsive to their needs as possible.

Only in acting on behalf of the people will a sense of ownership of their government be created among the Iraqi people.

The government cannot afford to be seen as acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

Any sense of citizen ownership of the government may fade if the new government is seen to have less than full control over its affairs or if it is undermined by Iraqi power centers — political figures outside the government but who have ministers in it.

When the government was established in late May, a number of key influential politicians and party leaders remained outside. These figures are party leaders who were in the Iraqi Governing Council (GC) but who this time sent their second- or third-rank party members to serve as ministers.

This situation could potentially undermine the credibility of the new government as leaders who do not have an official role can nonetheless exert control through their anointed ministers. For example, party leaders could pull their ministers out of the government.

The recent Kurdish threat to withdraw from the government is a case in point and sets a bad precedent. In addition to the vice president and the deputy prime minister, there are six Kurdish ministers in the new government. Apart from the minister of human rights, who is an independent, the other officials are second, third or even lower ranking members of the two main parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But party leaders Mas’ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani do not hold official posts.

The risk is that the people may see this government as one that is controlled by leaders outside the official political process.

Under the previous setup, most of these leaders were in the GC. The only leader outside was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He repeatedly undermined the GC in the eyes of the people by making demands on the political process that he was not a part of.

The GC was further undermined in the eyes of the people by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was the true decision-making power and could veto all GC and cabinet decisions.

There were no clear lines of authority between the GC, the cabinet and the CPA. Hence, Iraqis did not turn to the GC or the ministers to solve problems and improve their living standard.

The real test for this new government will begin when sovereignty is transferred to the Iraqis. If the government does not have truly sovereign authority and the new U.S. embassy meddles in its affairs, the new government will be nothing more than GC II.

The most predictable problem will be that of dual authority between the governmentandtheU.S.-led “multinational” forces.

The United Nations can play an important role by setting up a body comprised of Iraqis, internationals and U.N. representatives to arbitrate on the day-to-day problems that could arise out of conflicts of authority.

The past 35 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq have created a strong anti-foreign sentiment among the people. They do not want to see anything imposed by outside powers.

The United States will need to step back. The new U.S. team in Baghdad should not repeat the many mistakes of the old team. It should, at least on the surface, behave like an embassy.

A key reason for the immediate popularity of the new government was that it was not blatantly formed by the United States or the United Nations. It really was the Iraqi representatives on the GC who demanded, through leaks and press statements, the appointment of Ayad Allawi and Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar.

This current popular support and satisfaction with the new government is the key to creating a sense of ownership among Iraqis and must be maintained.

The transitional government must not be overshadowed by the United States or undermined by Iraqi power centers outside the government.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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