Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

Belittling Iraqis not helping U.S. position

February 22, 2004


— The Bush administration liberated Iraqis 10 months ago. But it still does not trust them -- not even the 25 Iraqis chosen to help manage their country's transition to freedom. They have been rewarded for their cooperation by disdain and denigration from Washington.

The steady belittling of America's chosen allies and natural friends in Iraq sends a chilling signal throughout the Middle East, which President Bush has proclaimed to be the center of his "forward strategy of democracy."

An Egyptian or Saudi dissident tempted to take the chance of supporting Bush's vision will draw little comfort or encouragement from the treatment of Iraqi risk-takers, who are being told they are not ready to hold elections or exercise independent leadership.

Bold in its destruction of Saddam Hussein's detested dictatorship, the administration's top echelon has been timid in its creation of the political structures needed to replace the tyrant.

Washington has made the political mistake of trying to beat somebody with nobody -- of attaching more importance to mathematical formulas about representation of Iraq's population groups in government than to promoting local leaders and institutions ready to take on democratic rule.

The problems began in the crucial opening phase of occupation, when the administration suddenly tossed out plans for installing an Iraqi coalition of leaders that had been carefully assembled over months of deliberation. Washington even tossed out the man who had drawn up the plans, Jay Garner, and named Paul Bremer to head the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Bremer expanded Garner's nine-person leadership group into a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. Bremer also carefully limited the council's powers and, when it displeased him, threatened to disband it and name a new one.

Last week it was Bremer's caucus plan for choosing an interim leadership to replace the Governing Council that was abruptly tossed out after it encountered stubborn opposition from the country's Shiite majority. The June 30 deadline for the transfer of sovereignty was left standing. But neither Bremer nor U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan could say what kind of caretaker government would take charge then or guess at how it would be chosen.

That is a damaging admission this late in the game. It also ignores the obvious: A core group of Iraqi leaders, most of whom fought Saddam from exile or from the Kurdish regions protected by U.S. air power after the 1991 Gulf War, has asserted itself over the past decade. Its members have shown that they can work together and promote democratic values.

At conference after conference in the long run-up to the war and in the Governing Council since the occupation, leadership has gravitated to Kurdistan's Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, to Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, Adnan Pachachi, Abdul Aziz Hakim, and a few others. To be sure, there is no Thomas Jefferson among them. But to wait for Jefferson to emerge from the ruins of Baghdad would be to condemn the United States to eternal occupation.

Moreover, to bypass this leadership group would undermine the historical legitimacy of the genuine Iraqi resistance, which Bush launched the March invasion to support. To expand the council's membership in a continuing, cosmetic pursuit of a mathematical balance of "representation" is a pointless, debilitating exercise at this late date.

To disband or transmogrify the Governing Council on June 30 would also put the Bush administration in bed with its most knee-jerky critics -- those who maintain that mere association with the United States has somehow tainted and corrupted the Governing Council members. Any Iraqi who agrees with democratic values cannot possibly be an authentic Arab leader, this argument goes.

Chalabi, who was educated in the United States and who relentlessly lobbied Democratic and Republican administrations to intervene in Iraq, is a particular lightning rod for such guilt by association. His quarrels with the CIA have also left him branded as uppity and uncontrollable, qualities that have not endeared him to the Bush White House, but which might just stand him in good stead in Iraq's nationalistic politics.

Now the entire council is being regularly denounced as feckless and corrupt by anonymous State Department and other U.S. officials quoted in The Washington Post, The New York Times and elsewhere. One intended effect of this is to "establish" that whatever goes wrong in Iraq is the fault of the Iraqis, not the brilliant minds in Washington who were just trying to help.

Who should organize Iraq's election? The answer lies in plain sight -- for those with eyes to see. Let the council be the council and get on with its work.

- Jim Hoagland is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group

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