Iraq’s governing council: foul or fair?

By Adnan Abu Odeh
Published August 8th 2003 in The Daily Star, Lebanon

Opinions differ concerning the Iraqi governing council formed three weeks ago by US Civil Administrator Paul Bremer. Much of the debate has centered on two issues: the degree of freedom the council enjoys in making its own decisions and the sectarian nature of its composition.

On the first issue, there are those who are uneasy with the council because they see it as a first step toward consolidating the Anglo-American occupation ­ given the body’s lack of independent decision-making powers. There are also those who support it precisely because they view it as a first step toward ending the occupation. Both sides agree that the occupation must end, but they are divided over their understanding of political events.

Those in the first group seem to be getting ahead of themselves by betting on American goodwill, out of a mistaken belief ­ or desire to believe ­ that the invasion of Iraq was aimed at liberating the country from a wicked dictatorship. Now that liberation has been achieved, they argue that Iraqis should exercise their right to self-government as promised, and that the governing council is at the core of this prerogative.

Those in the second group appear more pragmatic. They realize that the American invasion of Iraq, which resulted in a de facto internationally recognized occupation thanks to UN Security Council Resolution 1483, not only was conducted with the intention of removing a dictatorship, but also of securing America’s strategic interests through an Iraqi administration installed specifically for that end. To the Americans, therefore, the governing council is the nucleus of a new national administration that in time will grow, prosper and deal with them based on mutual and shared interests. They also hope that once the situation in Iraq stabilizes, the new administration will negotiate the withdrawal of US forces and the country will, in due course, take its rightful place among America’s Arab allies.

This scenario conjures up images of the “give and take” relationship that was common in the political parlance of colonized countries in the first half of the 20th century ­ for example in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, where a local “national” administration cohabited with the occupying power until independence.

A similar arrangement could have been possible in Iraq if organized resistance had not replaced political action and violence had not replaced political dialogue. It would have also been possible had the resistance movement struck a deal with Iraq’s current political leadership to generate pressure in order to strengthen the latter’s hand in its peaceful interaction with the occupying power.

The second object of debate, the sectarian nature of the governing council, is more important and dangerous. The council in its present form is designed to reflect the sectarian and ethnic composition of Iraq. The fear is that if such a pattern is accepted as is, it will become a road map for future Iraqi systems of government after the occupation, drawing strict lines between the various sectarian and ethnic groups in the country. These lines could eventually become walls of separation between Iraqis.

The way to dissolve these divisions, however, is not through a system that apportions power according to ethnic and religious considerations or through a national resistance movement that cuts across ethnic and religious lines, but rather through the development of a new constitution that devises an election law based on proportional representation. Regrettably, however, signs of sectarian and ethnic divisions had already begun to surface before the ink dried on the edict calling for the formation of the governing council. It seems most Shiites are now satisfied with the council’s composition, while most Sunnis regard the body with disappointment and fear. To remedy this, it might be wise for the council to adopt a rotation system giving each of its component groups a turn at leadership, instead of electing a president. By doing so, the council would be able to stave off further problems until a new constitution is drawn up. In contrast, the election of a president could give rise to speculation that the Americans favor one group over the others, or are purposely seeking to highlight ethnic differences.

Furthermore, the present composition of the council leaves the door open to foreign interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs. A case in point has been the Turkish government’s expression of dissatisfaction with seeing only one seat allotted to the Turkmen minority. In doing this, Turkey implicitly signaled that the ethnic and religious makeup of the council was acceptable for as long as it was fair, bringing to mind its military invasion of Cyprus that divided the island across religious lines. Although Turkey more than any other country opposes Iraq’s division, it is willing to utilize the issue of the Turkmens to achieve its own tactical ends. The Iraqi governing council is a good idea if a free and united Iraq is what we seek. But the way it was conceived and its subsequent actions gave rise to legitimate suspicion as to its intended aims.

Adnan Abu Odeh, a former Jordanian ambassador, information minister and chief of the Royal Court is a regular contributor to THE DAILY STAR