Iraq's Interim Prime Minister Vows to Reclaim Sovereignty

By Dexter Filkins
Published June 5th 2004 in The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In his first public address, Iraq's new prime minister defended the presence of U.S. and British forces on Iraqi soil and warned that their departure would be a catastrophe for the country.

Ayad Allawi, speaking on television three days after being designated prime minister, said his compatriots, "as Iraqis, can never accept occupation," and he vowed to reclaim the country's full sovereignty on June 30.

But his speech amounted to a vigorous defense of the continued presence of U.S. troops at a time when some public opinion polls have reported that a majority of Iraqis want U.S., British and other foreign troops to leave the country immediately.

Allawi's speech came on the same day that U.N. officials announced they would devise a system of proportional representation to elect members for the 275-member national assembly in a vote scheduled for January.

The announcement by the United Nations capped a week of significant steps intended to put the country on the path to democratic elections, a process that some Iraqis and U.N. officials hope will begin to drain some of the anger that is driving the current insurgency.

Allawi, wearing a Western-style coat and tie, told Iraqis that the elections were inextricably bound with the guerrilla insurgency, and that the former could not succeed without the defeat of the latter.

"Our government has decided that only the restoration of security and the safeguarding of citizens' dignity, honor and wealth will enable us to successfully proceed on the political course and achieve the transfer of full sovereignty," he said in a speech that was carried by television stations such as al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, which broadcast across the Arab-speaking world.

"Targeting the multinational forces, led by the United States, to force them out of Iraq would be a catastrophe for Iraq, especially before the completion of the building of security and military institutions," Allawi said.

"I should also mention here that the coalition forces, too, have sacrificed the blood of their sons to the terror attacks designed to force them to leave Iraq."

Allawi seemed to be suggesting there would be a substantial difference between the occupation, which he said was ending, and the situation after June 30, when, he suggested, the Iraqi government would have greater control over coalition forces.

Allawi's remarks echoed those made by the new foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, on Thursday in a speech to the U.N. Security Council, which is trying to draft a resolution laying out the limits of Iraqi sovereignty and the freedom of the U.S. military to operate here.

At the United Nations on Friday, the United States and Britain circulated a revised draft resolution, the third version in less than two weeks.

Its principal change would extend the power to order the departure of foreign troops to the interim government coming into office on June 30. Previous texts would have reserved that power for the government that will take over after elections scheduled for January.

The new revision still fails to clarify the central issue of the relationship between the Iraqi authorities and the U.S.-led force and how it would be applied in combat situations where the Iraqis might want to act independently of U.S. command.

The British and the Americans, cosponsors of the resolution, say this will be laid out in an exchange of letters next week.

The 15-member Security Council was bitterly divided over Iraq a year ago, but it is expected to produce a unanimous vote, probably next week.

The resolution is meant to enshrine the sovereignty of the new government, confer international legitimacy on the multinational force and define the U.N. role in post-transition Iraq.

Allawi, a secular Shiite, was selected earlier this week in a U.N.-sponsored selection process to lead the government that will take over when sovereignty is restored on June 30. His government, which includes more than 30 other leaders, is supposed to guide the country toward democratic elections in January.

A neurologist, Allawi is known for his association with the CIA, which supported his efforts and that of his exile group, the Iraqi National Accord, to topple Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.

Allawi's speech followed an announcement earlier in the day of the creation of an Iraqi election commission to oversee preparations for the voting, and of the basic framework for the elections themselves.

Carina Perelli, director of the U.N. electoral assistance division, said her team had decided to conduct elections based on proportional representation.

In the proposed system, each voter across the country would choose from among rival lists of candidates, with the lists typically backed by political parties.

The number of votes tallied by a party nationwide would determine how many of its candidates who appeared on its list would take office.

Under the system, the percentage of votes received by a particular party would roughly equal the percentage of seats it would be awarded in the national assembly.

Based on an estimate of the number of potential Iraqi voters, Perelli said a typical candidate would need to capture between 26,000 and 27,000 votes nationwide to gain a seat in the national assembly.

Perelli said U.N. officials and the Iraqis with whom they had consulted favored that approach in part because it tended to award more seats to smaller parties than would a system of elections by districts, such as those for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Proportional representation, she said, would help give voice to the many ethnic and religious communities that had been broken up and dispersed during the years of Saddam's rule.

The interim constitution calls for at least a quarter of the assembly seats to go to women. To achieve that, Perelli said, the proposed system would require every third name on each party's list of candidates to be that of a woman.

But she said that because many parties would qualify for no more than a handful of seats, the proportion of women's names appearing on the list should be increased.

The election commission that was announced Friday is made up of eight Iraqis. It is empowered to draw up a nationwide list of voters and to set up the sprawling infrastructure, thought to require 20,000 to 30,000 polling places, to hold elections.

The commission will have the power to postpone the elections in all or part of the country if it decides that the level of violence will not allow the voting to proceed in a coherent way.

Perelli said she was optimistic that elections could proceed in January, even amid the guerrilla insurgency and terrorist attacks.

As evidence, she cited a list of war-ravaged countries -- Congo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Liberia -- where the United Nations had either helped set up elections or was currently trying to do so.

Although the eight Iraqis named to the electoral commission did not appear, Perelli said she was pleased with their character and competence.

She said her experience in other countries had shown her that an electoral commission that is perceived as honest and impartial can help increase participation in elections.

"Without people you can't have a credible election," said Perelli, a 46-year-old political scientist from Uruguay who grew up in a country that was then under military rule. "With the people, even in situations of extreme distress, you can have credible elections."