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Bush's 'transfer of power' gambit
By Jack A Smith

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The war in Iraq may be blowing up in the Bush administration's face, but the White House is conspiring to maintain substantial military, political and economic power in the war-torn country following a deeply suspect "transfer of sovereign power" to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.

The guerrilla resistance, combined with Washington's bungling of the occupation, have compelled President George W Bush and his neo-conservative advisors to reconfigure or shelve several of their more grandiose post-war plans. But the US government has no intention to simply relinquish its expensively obtained hegemony over a Baghdad government possessing the world's second largest proven petroleum reserves and strategically located to influence the entire Middle East.

The US must execute three complex maneuvers to accomplish its goal:

1. Inducing the United Nations to become an active partner in Iraq, providing the White House with respectable support and camouflage for its endeavors in exchange for the appearance of shared authority.

2. Taking measures to ensure that a huge American occupation force remains in the country, and that Washington will exercise great influence over the new permanent government and Iraq's economy by establishing a virtual parallel regime of its own in Baghdad.

3. Containing the resistance by any means necessary - from massive retaliation against the Sunni fighters and their new allies led by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to making deals with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the principal leader of the majority Shi'ite population. The entire plan may fail unless the resistance is destroyed or reduced to occasional attacks against Pentagon-controlled Iraqi security forces.

An important consequence of this plan, if successful in its opening stages, is that it may help reelect Bush of Baghdad to a second term in November. Even if he is defeated by the Democrats, a John Kerry administration does not appear politically indisposed to implementing a similar design.

The Bush administration was so cocooned in superpower hubris in the months leading to the preemptive invasion of Iraq a year ago that it publicly dismissed the UN as irrelevant, and refused to assign the world organization more than menial responsibilities. The transformation of the occupation into a fiasco turned the tide.

Almost everything went wrong for the US after toppling Saddam Hussein - from underestimating the opposition of Iraqi people, to the loss of credibility when it proved unable to locate Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction; from the development of an effective national liberation struggle, to the increasing number of GIs who have been killed and wounded (over 10,000 Iraqi civilian casualties don't seem to count); from the problems of occupying a nation in ruins, to popular rejection of the puppet government selected by the Pentagon; from the disinclination of allies to support a clearly unjust and illegal war, to the worldwide condemnation of the invasion and occupation.

The UN is acceding to Washington's wishes so far, despite grave reservations about Bush's actions. This is not unexpected. The global body never criticized the US for violating its charter and illegally invading in the first place, and it has subsequently approved measures recognizing Washington's administration of the occupation.

At this stage, the Bush regime needs the UN to work out the logistics of the supposed transfer of power to the Iraqis June 30. This is because the powerful Shi'ites have successfully vetoed several previous US transitional plans. They believe that their 65 percent majority entitles them to power commensurate to their numbers in the new "democratic" government.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has named Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, as his special envoy to Iraq. He then agreed that Robert Blackwill, the White House deputy national security adviser responsible for Iraq, should work with the special envoy in developing the "Brahimi Plan" that was unveiled in vague, provisional terms last week. The Bush administration rushed to accept the "UN proposal" on April 15. The plan calls for dissolving the highly unpopular Iraq Governing Council (IGC), justly considered a US puppet, and replacing it on July 1 with a caretaker government to be selected by the UN "after consultations" with the US and Iraqi parties. Full elections for a permanent regime would be held in January.

It now seems the UN will create the structure of a new regime, among attendant tasks, assuming the various parties which rejected Washington's formulations can agree to operate within Brahimi's guidelines.

This does not mean the Bush administration has lost its power in Iraq. The US has handed an exceedingly hot potato to the UN, while retaining decisive power where it matters. As the New York Times stated in an article April 16: "Administration officials asserted that, even with the UN overseeing the selection of a caretaker government and then holding an election and helping the Iraqis write a constitution, American influence on the process would be considerable - not least because the US is to remain in charge of military and security matters and will be the country's main source of economic aid." Actually, the US is in a stronger position because it conveys the impression Bush is working with the UN to "create democracy" in Iraq.

Bush and L Paul Bremer, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), have been taking steps for many months to assure that the US will continue to wield decisive influence after the "transfer of power" to the Iraqis. Here is how it will work:

Some 110,000 US troops are scheduled to remain in Iraq for several years. They will be ensconced in 14 permanent military camps, designed as highly fortified enclaves outside big cities to minimize the number of American casualties. The GIs will fight only if US-controlled Iraqi security forces cannot handle a particular crisis, or if it becomes necessary for Washington to protect its own economic and political interests against an insurrection, or as a show of force to keep Baghdad in line.

The Bush administration expects that the new government will "invite" US troops to remain in the country under the usual "status of forces" agreement with various foreign countries hosting some 750 other US bases. If the Iraqis balk at an occupation agreement, Washington will interpret UN Security Council resolution 1551 as providing the needed authority. The resolution was passed last fall to "legalize" the US-led occupation. As now, the commanding general of the occupation force will report directly to the Pentagon, bypassing Iraqi and US civilian authorities in the country.

The White House is creating a parallel political regime in Baghdad. It has ordered construction of the largest American embassy in the world to accommodate an extraordinary 3,000 employees, far larger than any other US diplomatic mission. Many of these "diplomats" will be assigned to the various Iraqi government departments as "advisers," or co-equal authorities, effectively sharing in the operations of the Iraqi government. According to the progressive British journalist and film-maker John Pilger, writing in the New Statesman on April 17: "There will be no handover [of power]. The new regime will be stooges, with each ministry controlled by American officials and with its stooge army and stooge police force run by the Americans."

Evidence that the US plans to impose itself on future Iraqi governments is embedded in the interim constitution passed by the IGC: all laws and regulations emanating from the CPA must be recognized as valid in the future. Whether this clause is to be retained in the permanent constitution is not known. Many CPA regulations are designed to control the economy. For example, they include rules to speed the privatization of Iraq's state enterprises and property, and for the disposition of the country's petroleum resources. The CPA has also established a number of "independent" regulators to share power in various government ministries.

The US has another coercive weapon with which to manipulate the new government. It controls $18.4 billion in aid for desperately needed reconstruction tasks, without which Iraq will remain a ruin. Washington will decide which firms get the contracts for this aid.

Bush has just selected John D Negroponte, Washington's ambassador to the UN, to function as the envoy to Baghdad. Considering the size and nature of his assignment, he will serve in effect as prime minister of the parallel government, reporting to the State Department. Negroponte is an old hand at subversion, after his years as ambassador to Honduras when the country was used to support counter-revolutionary Contras in neighboring Nicaragua. He has been widely criticized by the left for covering up for human rights abuses in Honduras.

The Bush administration's intention to create a neo-colonial dependency under the guise of building democracy and restoring sovereignty may well degenerate into a fragile house of cards destined to collapse sooner than later. The two most important internal factors in making this determination will be the resistance of national liberation forces and the relationship of the Shi'ite majority to the new government and the US occupation authority.

The Pentagon's biggest immediate headache is the nationalist guerrilla resistance led by the Arab Sunni minority and joined by a small number of foreign fighters. A much more throbbing headache is lurking in the background - the possibility that the Shi'ite majority will refuse to cooperate with the US-UN authorities or, worse yet, join the rebellion. (The Kurds in the north are Sunnis, but their singular interest in obtaining as much autonomy as possible by cooperating with the US, eventually leading to an independent Kurdistan, is another matter entirely.)

The CPA was reported to think the Sunni guerrilla forces were becoming weaker after attaining an apogee last fall. The upsurge in fighting in Fallujah, Njaf and other cities throughout April proved decidedly otherwise, particularly when Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army joined the struggle - at least in part as retaliation for Bremer's decision to shut down his movement's newspaper, al-Hawza. The main fighting lasted for three weeks and over 100 GIs were killed. American forces responded with an onslaught that killed up to 1,000 Iraqis, the majority of whom, as customary, were civilians. The behavior of US troops in selecting targets was so questionable that several members of the IGC registered stern protests and a few resigned.

One of the lessons US generals learned from the events of April is that the colonial army and police force it is organizing to fight the insurrection in place of American troops cannot be counted on - a factor that has the potential of scuttling plans for a long-term occupation. One entire Iraqi brigade of 650 soldiers simply refused orders to enter Fallujah, arguing, "We did not sign up to fight Iraqis," according to the April 10 Washington Post. The same article reported that the April uprising caused up to 25 percent of Iraqi security forces to "quit, change sides or otherwise fail to perform their duties". So far, the US has trained 150,000 Iraqi police and military recruits, largely drawn from the desperately poor army of the unemployed. The majority have joined in order to feed their families and have no loyalty to the modern crusaders occupying their country.

The evident unreliability of the Iraqi forces is a serious problem for the Pentagon, which is running out of soldiers because so many of them are stationed throughout the world. At this time there are 134,000 US troops in Iraq (not counting up to 20,000 mercenaries providing many of the security services once carried out by the armed forces). Bush promises to send more troops when needed, but there are not enough GIs to fight in a large and sustained guerrilla war, particularly since the 17,500-soldier "coalition" force is being depleted by the defection of Spain (1,300 troops), Honduras (370) and possibly other countries.

Of great importance during the latest uprising was an April 10 anti-occupation rally of some 200,000 people in Baghdad with Sunni and Shi'ite together praising the armed struggle conducted simultaneously by both religious communities. The unity shown on that day is in contrast to speculation from some quarters about an eventual Sunni-Shi'ite civil war.

Most of the Shi'ite community remained quiescent during the April confrontations under instructions from Sistani, who is playing a complicated game. He despises the Americans, but recognizes events may maneuver them into granting the Shi'ite principal control of the new Iraqi government. In the extreme, a US deal with Shi'ite Iran's ruling ayatollahs cannot be ruled out: an exchange of Shi'ite predominance in Iraq, plus less hostility from Washington toward "rogue" Tehran, for Iran's guarantee to keep a Shi'ite government in Baghdad within America's bounds.

Muqtada, an Islamic radical in his early 30s, is decidedly subordinate to Sistani in rank. But he is the son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, a symbol of resistance to the Saddam regime, who was slain five years ago, allegedly by agents of the former Baghdad government. He could order his forces to join the uprising for good in hopes that this act would prompt other Shi'ites to join them. So far, the main Shi'ite Badr militia has remained passive in compliance with Sistani's wishes.

The situation in Iraq is exceptionally complicated and events are moving at considerable speed. Anything can happen - and probably will, in a matter of weeks or months. Keep your eyes on the "transfer of power" gambit.

Jack A Smith was the former chief editor of the now defunct US progressive newsweekly The Guardian, and presently the editor of a newsletter devoted to political activism. He resides in the Hudson Valley region of New York in the USA.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Apr 23, 2004

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