Global Policy Forum

Behind the Scenes,


By Yochi J. Dreazen and Christopher Cooper

Wall Street Journal
May 13, 2004

Haider al-Abadi runs Iraq's Ministry of Communications, but he no longer calls the shots there. Instead, the authority to license Iraq's television stations, sanction newspapers and regulate cellphone companies was recently transferred to a commission whose members were selected by Washington. The commissioners' five-year terms stretch far beyond the planned 18-month tenure of the interim Iraqi government that will assume sovereignty on June 30.

The transfer surprised Mr. Abadi, a British-trained engineer who spent nearly two decades in exile before returning to Iraq last year. He found out the commission had been formally signed into law only when a reporter asked him for comment about it. "No one from the U.S. even found time to call and tell me themselves," he says.

As Washington prepares to hand over power, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and other officials are quietly building institutions that will give the U.S. powerful levers for influencing nearly every important decision the interim government will make.

In a series of edicts issued earlier this spring, Mr. Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority created new commissions that effectively take away virtually all of the powers once held by several ministries. The CPA also established an important new security-adviser position, which will be in charge of training and organizing Iraq's new army and paramilitary forces, and put in place a pair of watchdog institutions that will serve as checks on individual ministries and allow for continued U.S. oversight. Meanwhile, the CPA reiterated that coalition advisers will remain in virtually all remaining ministries after the handover.

In many cases, these U.S. and Iraqi proxies will serve multiyear terms and have significant authority to run criminal investigations, award contracts, direct troops and subpoena citizens. The new Iraqi government will have little control over its armed forces, lack the ability to make or change laws and be unable to make major decisions within specific ministries without tacit U.S. approval, say U.S. officials and others familiar with the plan.

The moves risk exacerbating the two biggest problems bedeviling the U.S. occupation: the reluctance of Iraqis to take responsibility for their own country and the tendency of many Iraqis to blame the country's woes on the U.S.

Nechirvan Barzani, who controls the western half of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, warns that the U.S. presence in the country will continue to spark criticism and violence until Iraqis really believe they run their own country. For his part, Mr. Abadi, the communications minister, says that installing a government that can't make important decisions essentially "freezes the country in place." He adds, "If it's a sovereign Iraqi government that can't change laws or make decisions, we haven't gained anything."

U.S. officials say their moves are necessary to prevent an unelected interim government from making long-term decisions that the later, elected government would find difficult to undo when it takes office next year. U.S. officials say they are also concerned that the interim government might complicate the transition process by maneuvering to remain in power even after its term comes to an end.

The fear is not a hypothetical one: The U.S.-appointed Governing Council embarrassed and angered the U.S. by publicly lobbying to assume sovereignty this summer as Iraq's next rulers. Those concerns are shared by the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. With Shiites making up nearly 60% of Iraq, Mr. Sistani and his followers don't want important decisions made until an elected government -- which he expects Shiites to dominate -- takes power.

U.S. officials say many Iraqi political leaders also tacitly approve severely restricting the powers of the new government, even if they don't say so publicly. "The Iraqis know we don't want to be here, and they know they're not ready to take over," says a State Department official with intimate knowledge of the Bush administration's plans for Iraq. "We'd love a welcoming sentiment from the Iraqis, but we'll accept grim resignation."

Currently, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which answers to the Pentagon, has total control of the governance of Iraq. It can issue decrees on virtually any topic, which then immediately become law. It will formally cease to exist on June 30. The Governing Council exists largely as an advisory body. Its members can pass laws, but the legislation must be approved by Mr. Bremer. The council has no control over the U.S. military, and in practice has little influence on civil matters.

It's unclear what powers the interim government, which will be set up by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, will have. It will not control Iraq's security forces or military. In theory, it will have the ability to enforce and interpret laws on its own, though it will as of now lack the ability to write new ones or make large changes to them.

One thing is clear: The government's actions are likely to be heavily influenced by dozens of U.S. and Iraqi appointees at virtually all levels.

In March, for instance, Mr. Bremer issued a lengthy edict consolidating control of all Iraqi troops and security forces under the Ministry of Defense and its head, Ali Allawi. But buried in the document is a one-paragraph "emergency" decree ceding "operational control" of all Iraqi forces to senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq. Iraqis will be able to organize the army, make officer appointments, set up new-officer and special-forces courses, and try to develop doctrines and policies to govern the forces. But they can't actually order their forces into, or out of, combat -- that power will rest solely with U.S. commanders.

U.S. Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who participated in the original Iraq invasion, will soon assume responsibility for training the new forces. With American commanders retaining the power to order the forces into combat, Mr. Allawi or his successor will be left with only "administrative control" of the forces.

Meanwhile, the media and telecom commission Mr. Bremer created will be able to collect media licensing fees, regulate television and telephone companies, shut down news agencies, extract written apologies from newspapers and seize publishing and broadcast equipment.

One of the new watchdog agencies, the Office of the Inspector General, will have appointees inside every Iraqi ministry charged with combating malfeasance and fraud. Appointed to five-year terms, the inspectors will be allowed to subpoena witnesses and documents, perform forensic audits and issue annual reports.

The other watchdog, the Board of Supreme Audit, will oversee a battery of other inspectors with wide-ranging authority to review government contracts and investigate any agency that uses public money. Mr. Bremer will appoint the board president and his two deputies. They can't be removed without a two-thirds vote of Iraq's parliament, which isn't slated to come into existence until sometime next year.

Few of the positions have been filled so far, but officials at the CPA and the Governing Council say they expect to name the new officials within weeks. The advisers inside the ministries are likely to be almost exclusively American, while the inspectors and members of the various new commissions will all be Iraqi. Individual ministers can dismiss their advisers, but many U.S. officials assume they'll be reluctant to do so for fear of antagonizing the U.S.

The nerve center of the U.S. presence in Iraq will be a massive new embassy. CPA officials recently decided that most employees of the new embassy will remain in a former palace used by Saddam Hussein even though the building is seen by many Iraqis as a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty. The embassy needs the space: It will ultimately employ approximately 1,300 Americans, as well as 2,000 or more Iraqis. The current occupation authority employs 1,500 people.

The U.S. plans to convert a nearby building into the formal embassy that incoming U.S. ambassador John Negroponte can use for ceremonial functions. In an unusual move, two of Mr. Negroponte's top deputies will also have ambassadorial rank. James Jeffrey will become the deputy chief of mission at the embassy. Blunt and often profane, Mr. Jeffrey, a former Army special forces officer, is currently the ambassador to Albania and has held senior posts in Turkey and Kuwait. Ron Newman, currently the ambassador to Bahrain, also has a military background and is likely to join the embassy in Iraq in a senior position such as defense attaché.

The U.S. push to continue guiding events in Iraq has been led by the State Department, where officials have grown convinced that placing the country under full Iraqi control now would plunge it deeper into violence and political turmoil, according to people familiar with the matter. U.S. officials had once talked of occupying Iraq for several years, a period more in keeping with the precedent set by the seven-year occupation of Japan after World War II. Last November, however, the White House accelerated the timetable. Despite a wave of bombings the previous month, the administration believed the insurgency was limited to a small number of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "dead-enders."

The Bush administration also felt Iraq's Sunni minority, which had controlled Iraq under Mr. Hussein, had been neutralized by the disbanding of the army and the firing of tens of thousands of government officials. Iraq's Shiite majority was seemingly unified behind Mr. Sistani, who counseled his followers to cooperate with the coalition. And Iraq's ethnic Kurds, who controlled the country's north, had moderated their long-held demands for full independence.

Many of those assumptions haven't yet panned out. Sunnis angry over their forced disenfranchisement have put up a stiff resistance to the U.S. occupation in cities like Fallujah, and Iraq's fledgling security forces have been unable or unwilling to help fight them. Thousands of Shiites have taken up arms against the U.S. under the flag of Muqtada al Sadr, an anti-American cleric once dismissed by Washington as a bit player in Iraq.

The Kurds, meanwhile, remain deeply wary of joining up with the rest of the country. With the violence surging in recent weeks, the State Department official with knowledge of the administration's plans says the U.S. "realized that what we put on the table in November wasn't flying."

U.S. officials settled on making an array of appointments intended to allow them to influence the interim government. The CPA official charged with setting up the new embassy, John C. Holzman, downplays the possibility of disputes, and says the role of the advisers will change after June 30 because they will no longer be answering to an occupation authority with full authority over Iraq.

"There will be a huge difference because we're not going to be issuing orders anymore," he says. "We won't be the sovereign here anymore."

But many Iraqis and Americans concede that friction is all but inevitable. If recent events are any indication, the most serious disagreements between the U.S. and the new government could arise over the best strategy for fighting the ongoing insurgency. When fighting flared in Fallujah and Najaf, U.S. commanders ordered newly trained Iraqi units into combat alongside American forces, but the Iraqis proved largely ineffective. Many units deserted entirely, while others joined the insurgents.

It's also unclear if Iraqi political leaders will want local units to fight -- especially if the enemy is other Iraqis. The U.S. decision to use heavy weaponry like helicopter gunships against targets in Fallujah caused the resignations of two Iraqi political leaders who had been appointed by the U.S. almost a year earlier, and sparked searing denunciations of the coalition by numerous other Iraqi officials. The Iraqis insisted on a nonviolent solution to the dispute and accused the U.S. of acting with a heavy hand and causing needless civilian casualties.

If the U.S. pressed ahead with the offensive anyway, it would risk embarrassing the new government and persuading ordinary Iraqis that the body is powerless. But if it gave in, American commanders could find themselves hamstrung in the fight against insurgents.

Bill Spindle contributed to this article

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