When over eight million Iraqis turned out to vote, they surprised the world with their bravery and commitment to securing a better, more promising democratic future for their country. The power of the American call for freedom was evident on that day, as Iraqis risked their lives to cast their ballots and, indeed, over 40 Iraqis died in insurgent attacks. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt later affirmed, “When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world". Jumblatt himself helped launch the Lebanese drive to oust Syria from his country.
Yet nearly two months after the Iraqi elections, it is evident that there is a yawning gap between President George Bush’s strategic objective–the spread of freedom and democracy–and its implementation at the tactical level. An Iraqi government has yet to be formed and the plague of violence continues unabated. A significant section of the Iraqi population feels embittered and betrayed. What did they risk their lives for?
Part of the problem was Iran’s unchecked exercise of its influence in the internal politicking of the United Iraqi Alliance and the resulting selection of Daawa leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari as candidate for prime minister. Jaafari is the most dogmatic of the Islamic candidates and is regarded by many as the least competent. His selection was essentially dictated by Tehran, which told the Shi’ite leadership it wanted him as prime minister. SCIRI, which along with Daawa maintains close ties with Iran, accepted Tehran’s fiat and the joint SCIRI-Daawa front sealed the decision. (Those who claim Iran is fueling the Iraqi insurgency fail to understand that Iran’s greatest potential avenue of influence is through the Iraqi government.)
The Kurdish parties, which are essential to the formation of a new government, view Jaafari with particular mistrust. They are taking a harder line in negotiations to form the government than they would have had they been dealing with Adel Abdel Mehdi, the SCIRI candidate, or Ahmed Chalabi, the liberal Shi’ite politician who was central to the formation of the Alliance. The Kurds are essentially bargaining over issues, like the fate of Kirkuk, that an elected government should resolve after it is constituted, and in which the National Assembly should have a say.
The United States was not prepared for the election results, and it may well have been satisfied with Eyad Allawi continuing in office as caretaker prime minister for as long as it took the Iraqis to establish a new government. Ayatollah Sistani was issuing urgent public calls to form that government, but the United States was not, until just a few days ago.
Indeed, on the eve of the elections the US embassy reported that Allawi, the CIA’s long-time protege whom it had appointed interim prime minister, would likely continue in his post. It anticipated a three-way tie among Allawi’s list, the Kurdish list, and the Shi’ite list, and it calculated that it could then use its influence with the Kurds to secure Allawi’s continued tenure as prime minister. This prediction, however, constituted a very major misreading of the Iraqi scene. Allawi received only 14 percent of the vote–compared to 25 percent for the Kurds and 48 percent for the Alliance.
Allawi’s government is widely regarded by Iraqis as thoroughly corrupt. In early January, for example, Defense Minister Hazim Shalaan shipped $300 million in cash to Lebanon outside established channels for making government purchases. Shalaan claimed the money was to buy arms, but even the US embassy recognized that it was a dirty maneuver. However, this was not reported to Washington–part of an established pattern in which policymakers back home are not told the bad news from Iraq.
Allawi also failed to address the security situation, which deteriorated on his watch. Key government departments, particularly the Interior Ministry, are penetrated by Baathists whose loyalties lie with the insurgents rather than the government. Indeed, this is what happened in the 1990s, when the CIA engaged with Allawi in plotting at least two coups against Saddam Hussein. They were penetrated by Saddam’s regime and failed.
These very considerable problems are compounded by the hostility of the CIA and State Department toward Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi committed the cardinal sin of warning the CIA in the spring of 1996 that a coup plot it was running was penetrated, and after it failed, Chalabi told others that he had warned them. In addition, shortly after Saddam arrested and executed the conspirators in that plot, he marched 40,000 troops northward to attack Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress in its Irbil headquarters. The Clinton administration did nothing more than watch as the Iraqi regime prepared and launched its assault, and afterwards it adopted a posture of blaming the victim.
Many years, and many substantial events later–including nothing less than a US-led war that ousted Saddam–little has changed. Indeed, the CIA and State Department generally opposed that war, and Bush does not seem to understand how ill-served the United States and Iraq are by unaccountable bureaucrats, and bureaucracies, who cling to positions they adopted a decade ago.