Transfer of power in Iraq

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq , Asia | 28-Jan-04 | Source: New York Times

The U.S. occupation of Iraq is scheduled to come to a formal end this summer with the installation of an interim sovereign Iraqi government. Yet the procedures in place for choosing that government are insufficiently democratic and excessively complex. Unless the transition goes well, Washington's chances of extricating itself from the day-to-day political and security problems of Iraq could fade.

The system for choosing a new government is built around a convoluted sequence of caucuses in which appointed officials are supposed to solicit and then screen nominations from local dignitaries. The process allows no direct participation by ordinary Iraqis and provides no assurance that all important elements of the population will be appropriately represented. Although time is growing short, significant changes could produce a more democratic and satisfactory system.

The strongest pressure for such changes comes from Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most important Shiite religious leader. Al-Sistani, a relative moderate, has been unyielding in his insistence on some form of direct elections to assure that Iraq's Shiite majority cannot again be cheated out of its fair share of political power. His demands will not be easy to satisfy. Compiling reliable voter rolls would take months. Iraq remains so insecure that campaigning would be problematic and turnout could vary widely by region, distorting the outcome. But al-Sistani rejects Washington's claim that organizing national elections in time for the scheduled June 30 transfer of power would be impossible. Instead, he wants an independent United Nations assessment.

On Jan. 19, Washington and its appointees on the Iraqi Governing Council asked UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to authorize a mission that would go to Iraq in the coming days and try to determine if valid elections can be held before the transfer date, and, if not, whether a more democratic method of selecting the interim government can be devised that would satisfy al-Sistani. One compromise being floated would see an early transfer of sovereignty to an expanded version of the Iraqi council, with new appointees added to make it more representative. The council would then give way to a directly elected body later this year.

Iraqis are impatient to regain their sovereignty. But no one would benefit from a botched transition that embittered much of the Iraqi population. If delaying the turnover a few weeks would allow a more democratic transition, the United Nations should consider stretching out the timetable.

Whatever is decided on, not all Iraqis will be happy. That is why any plan needs the international legitimacy UN involvement can bring. The current dispute might have been avoided if the United Nations had been included at an earlier stage. Instead, the agreement that set up the flawed caucus plan was drawn up last fall without UN participation. It is encouraging to see Washington, however belatedly, now trying to correct that mistake.