Tough questions that need asking on Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 13-Oct-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

As a precondition for helping in Iraq, the United Nations is demanding that the United States hand over "early sovereignty" to an interim Iraqi government and then let those Iraqis invite the United Nations in to oversee their transition to constitution-writing and elections. I too would like to see Iraqis given more control faster and the United Nations more involved. But people are tossing around this idea without answering some hard questions first.

Would handing power to an interim Iraqi government really stop the attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi police, the United Nations and Iraq's interim leaders? I doubt it. These attackers don't want Iraqis to rule themselves; these attackers want to rule Iraqis. Why do you think the attackers never identify themselves or their politics? Because they are largely diehard Baathists who want to restore the old order they dominated and will kill anyone in the way.

Will the United Nations, which has basically left Iraq, not flee again when its officials get attacked again - which will happen even after Iraqis have sovereignty? Could the Iraqi Governing Council agree now on who should lead an interim government? Will the Europeans really pony up troops and billions of dollars for Iraq, if the United States hands the keys to an Iraqi interim government? Will the U.S. public want to stay involved then, as is needed?

Until these questions can be answered, without Iraq spinning out of control, I'd stick with the status quo as the least bad option - in part because genuine sovereignty means running your own affairs and the United States has already done more to build that at the grass-roots level in Iraq than most people realize.

I spoke the other day with Amal Rassam, an Iraqi-American anthropologist, who has been spearheading this effort. Since April, U.S. Army officers and Rassam's teams from RTI International, a nongovernmental organization, have gone out to all 88 neighborhoods of Baghdad, met with local leaders and helped them organize, through informal voting, 88 "interim advisory councils." Then the 88 councils elected nine district councils, and the nine district councils elected an interim 37-member Baghdad city council. For the first time ever, a popularly-based city council, including women, is demanding to set budgets, set priorities and decide who will police their neighborhoods, and is making the city's managers accountable to them.

Similar town councils have been set up all over Iraq. U.S. and British teams have been schooling the Iraqi councils in how to hold a meeting, set an agenda, take a vote and lobby. They have also provided seed money for women's groups and all sorts of other civil society organizations that Iraqis are scrambling to start. They have not unearthed any weapons of mass destruction, but they have unearthed a lot of aspiring Iraqi democrats.

"I have worked in many parts of the world," said Rassam, "and it is very gratifying to come here and see that we are beginning to get some natural leaders to emerge, men and women, from the real grass roots. We had two women from the councils, a Christian and a Muslim who keeps her head covered, go to a conference in Hilla the other day and speak about their experiences with incipient democracy. They came back and said to me, 'We want to talk to Paul Bremer [the U.S. administrator] and tell him there must be a quota for women on the constitution-writing committee.' To see these two women - one Christian, one veiled - stand up and say, 'You have really helped us come out and have self-confidence and now we don't want to stop here, we want women on the constitution-writing committee' - that is real democracy-building. I don't think you can put them back in their place, at least I hope not. These councils are a natural arena for leaders to emerge from the people."

Oh yes, these councils have their crooks and power hogs, some of whom have already been purged by their colleagues. But even with their warts, they are providing Iraqis a forum for the kind of horizontal conversation - between Sunnis, Shiites, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds - that Saddam never allowed and must happen for any Iraqi democracy to have a solid base.

I also spoke the other day with Nasreen Barwari, Iraq's new, Harvard-trained minister of public works. She made it very clear to me that she and her colleagues want sovereignty as soon as they are really able to run things. But to those demanding early sovereignty in Iraq, as a precondition for helping, she said: "If you want me to be sovereign, come and help me reconstruct my country. ... Help me get ready quicker."