Wanted in Iraq: a roadmap to free elections

Ghassan Atiyyah
15 October 2003

Iraqis are well aware that the credit for bringing down Saddam Hussein and his regime is due principally to the US administration, and specifically to President Bush.

Accordingly, many Iraqis welcomed the coalition forces as liberators rather than occupiers. This added an extra dimension to public expectations of the post-war period. Iraqis thought they could look forward not only to improved economic and social conditions but also to exercising their long-denied political rights.

But after six months of American rule, Iraqis have seen their fear of Saddam Hussein and his repressive agencies replaced by terror of a different kind: widespread anarchy, theft, killing, and the abduction of children and women (there have been some 400 cases of girls being kidnapped). In addition, they have been deprived even of the few basic necessities of daily life they used to enjoy (electricity, water and fuel), not to mention their jobs.

The country’s infrastructure had already been damaged by years of sanctions and conflict. But those Iraqi elements who exploited the post-war breakdown of order and security wrecked what remained.

The breakdown of order and security

Many Iraqis are troubled by the following questions: why didn’t the occupation authorities anticipate the post-war anarchy? And once it happened, why didn’t they take decisive measures to stamp it out? They protected some sites, such as the oilfields and the oil ministry, but neglected others. The consequence of their failure was that it was not just the regime but the entire state and its institutions that collapsed, and no provision was made for effective alternatives. Iraqis wonder how the US managed to oust the all-powerful Saddam regime in three weeks, yet failed to restore electricity in three months?

After purging them of Saddamist elements, the occupation authorities could have made use of the Iraqi police and army. To its credit, the army did not fight during the fall of Baghdad, thus helping reduce the number of Iraqi and American casualties. But the Pentagon decided to dissolve the Iraqi army, instead of reconstituting it in a manner that could have made use of some of its components, or would at least have prevented them from turning into a hostile force of hundreds of thousands of unemployed and disaffected men.

The subsequent attempt to correct this mistake by paying soldiers’ salaries did not address the problem of the wounded pride of these thousands of trained servicemen, vulnerable to being recruited into sabotage under the guise of an “anti-colonial” struggle.

Iraqis may have been the victims of their high expectations; but the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been the victim of power-struggles between decision-making centres in Washington, where preconceived ideological “visions” have helped create new enemies for the US in Iraq. Short-sighted policies, such as dissolving the defence ministry and army (so-called “de-Ba’athification”) or according minority treatment to the Sunni population, have served only to unite them in suspicion of Washington’s motives, and to drive some of them to take up arms.

The sheer number of people discharged – 400,000 soldiers, 100,000 policemen, 20,000 information ministry employees and tens of thousands of other government officials – illustrates the scale of the damage. Yet while the information ministry was dissolved, the ministry of culture – with Ba’athists in senior posts – was retained.

That decision was taken in Washington without consulting Iraqis. The CPA promptly realised it was a mistake, and is now considering how to correct it. Combating violence and terrorism actually requires the support and cooperation of some members of those communities that harbour and abet them: namely the army, Ba’athists, and dissatisfied member of the Sunni triangle.


In dealing with the Baath Party, there was always going to be a choice between adopting the Soviet model after the fall of communism, or the German model after the fall of Hitler. In the event, the decision to “de-Baathify” was taken under the sway of Washington preconceptions, influenced by certain Iraqi elements. Although Iraq’s experience was closer to the Soviet one, those with the upper hand in the US opted for the German model.

This united thousands of people, many of whom would have been prepared to cooperate with the new dispensation, against the interim administration. Some ministries were virtually stripped of staff as most were former Ba’athists – natural enough in a country subjected to thirty-five years’ unbroken one-party rule. The party reserved important jobs exclusively for members; until the late 1980s, only children from Ba’ath families were allowed to complete their higher studies or gain admission to university.

During those years, inevitably, many of the people who graduated, occupied important state jobs, and rose to leading positions in the various ministries, did not believe in Ba’athist ideas or in Saddam. Party membership was merely a career prerequisite. Now they find their careers terminated, while the new ministries search for fresh employees who may well lack their predecessors’ expertise and skills.

Moreover, it would not be feasible to rely on the skills of returning expatriate Iraqis. Present conditions in Iraq deter exiles and expatriates from returning. Most of those who have come back for more than a visit have done so on highly-paid short-term contracts to the CPA. Here again, their privileged status causes resentment among locally-recruited staff – not surprising when someone is paid $15,000 per month for doing a job for which someone else who is equally qualified earns $300-500. This “de-Ba’athification” policy has combined with the lack of security and widespread unemployment to push more qualified Iraqis into leaving the country at a time when they are most needed.

The Governing Council: making sectarianism official

Instead of enabling the Iraqi people to rule themselves, the CPA has itself assumed the governorship of Iraq. It could be argued that the failure of the country’s political forces and elites to agree on a common formula had made the deferral of the formation of an Iraqi interim authority inevitable. Indeed, they would not even have reached agreement on the formation of the Governing Council (GC) without CPA pressure.

Sixteen of the Council’s members had been in exile, where they had ample time to develop a joint political programme capable of filling the vacuum resulting from Saddam Hussein’s downfall. But even at their last pre-war meeting in Arbil in February 2003, they failed to unify their efforts, instead treating the impending regime change in Iraq as an American initiative from which they would surely profit.

In July, after a succession of reprisals and acts of sabotage, and at the urging of more friendly Iraqi political forces, the CPA put together the 25-member Governing Council, thereby diluting the monopoly of the Group of Five [the two Kurdish parties, Islamic Council, Iraqi National Congress (INC), Iraqi National Accord (INA – the G5), though they remained the dominant group within the GC.

When 17 members of the GC voted for nominating a head of Council, the five promptly imposed a rotating chair among only nine members of the GC, excluding the independents. The important cabinet portfolios were also awarded to the G5. A composition thus based on the ethnic and religious divisions of Iraqi society inaugurated a sectarian approach whose potentially dangerous consequences should not be underestimated.

This same sectarian approach was reflected in the two most important decisions taken by the GC: to form a constitutional committee and to set up the interim government. Instead of appointing members to the constitutional committee on merit, each GC member was left to name one representative. The composition of the interim government was determined in the same way. As a result, fellow-travellers and relatives of GC members were appointed, and the Council’s composition mirrored the distribution of cabinet portfolios.

Some ministries were annulled and others were created, not on practical grounds but principally to conform with the distribution of posts along ethnic and sectarian lines. Moreover, the GC did not reach out to any of the political forces that were excluded from it up to that point.

The adoption of an ethnic and sectarian formula is understandable as a temporary measure, given the failure of Iraqi political elites to reach agreement. But the alarm bells would soon start ringing were it to become established and institutionalised.

Those who cite the Lebanese case as a model for Iraq should note that Lebanon suffered a succession of civil wars precisely as a result of this kind of sectarian governing formula. Such a framework sooner or later threatens to blow the country apart. Transfer of power or sovereignty should be to a newly-elected, more representative body. The role of the GC in its present form is to facilitate the emergence of such a body: not to replace it.

Drafting the constitution

If democratic principles are to be respected, an elected body should assume the responsibility for composing a draft constitution and then putting it to the people in a general referendum.

This is what the Iraqis under British rule achieved eight decades ago. In 1924 they elected their first constituent assembly, which undertook the task of adopting a draft constitution after putting it to a popular referendum. Although the GC also intends to put its draft constitution to a referendum, the fact remains that the formula to be voted on will not have been chosen by elected representatives of the people. This approach will only provide further ammunition to elements that do not want the new Iraqi experiment to succeed.

On the other hand, the argument that the GC needs time to prepare for elections is understandable. It took a year for elections to be held in Iraqi Kurdistan after it was freed from the control of Saddam’s regime. The GC will take several months to compile a register of electors which must add to those used by the previous regime the lists available from the United Nations oil-for-food programme’s ration-card system, while giving absentees and those hitherto excluded every opportunity to register as voters. That might allow elections to be held in the spring of 2004, giving enough time for political parties and public opinion to engage effectively in the process.

If this course is pursued, the GC ought to assume the task of preparing for elections to a constituent assembly (rather than that of adopting a draft constitution), completing the necessary procedural steps within a year at most. The CPA can assist by providing a climate of security, with the UN helping to ensure the freedom and fairness of the elections.

Fuad Masoum, the preparatory committee chairman, has recently said that the commission which drafts the constitution ought to be elected. This may reflect a positive change of approach. But he failed to specify how the commission should be elected.

Some members of the GC justify delaying parliamentary elections by pointing to the need for a new census. At the same time, however, they have apportioned membership of the GC along ethnic and sectarian lines without ascertaining the accurate number of each grouping.

Does the US have an interest in early elections?

The US has committed itself to holding free elections in Iraq, and any retreat from that would constitute a defeat for its declared plans for the Middle East. How should they respond to those who raise the question of the appropriate timing?

Before I returned to Iraq, I favoured the option of deferring elections for as long as was necessary to enable a competent and effective administration to institute much-needed economic and social reforms. But under current conditions in Iraq, and with Washington unable to furnish the necessary funds or sufficient military forces, it will be difficult to provide either security or prosperity.

Any delay in holding elections can only render a service to the forces of extremism and backwardness in their various guises. Anything that Washington and London may stand to lose from elections held on an early specified date pales in comparison to what they would lose from continued anarchy, or from maintaining a military occupation costly in both material and human terms.

Early elections, under such circumstances, constitute a roadmap which could lead both Iraq and the US out of their current dilemma: in which retaining or reinforcing US troops puts a burden on both sides because of the hostility they attract as occupying forces, while their sudden withdrawal without any replacement would be an invitation to anarchy.

Moreover, internal elections recently held by trade unions and professional associations indicate the extent to which early engagement by Iraqis in electoral politics can undermine those advocating political violence. Elections would provide an incentive for Iraqis to cooperate with the US in order to restore the country to political and economic health, in addition to protecting it from some of its neighbours.

Given the mosaic-like character of their politics, Iraqis need a friendly outsider to play the role of facilitator or referee – not a ruler – ensuring that the rights of all are upheld. Such a role would reassure all the varied components of the Iraqi people that the US is an unbiased party to this process.

Adhering to parliamentary and democratic rules could only reinforce Iraq as a “model” for progressive regime change. Bending them to some pre-given agenda under whatever pretext could only weaken the future Iraq. Deploying more international force will not solve the problem, but rather perpetuate turmoil in the name of resisting occupation. Rounding up and cracking down on thousands of “Ba’athists,” and waging war on the “Sunni triangle”, will exacerbate the division of Iraqis into victors and vanquished, setting the stage for an internal conflict that could degenerate into civil war.

What Iraq needs is a just national reconciliation, not vendettas and score-settling. In short, nothing would do more to undermine the extremist forces that want to impose their own political agenda by force and sabotage than the announcement of an early date for elections.

A positive UN role

The adoption of such a political agenda could furnish a basis for a compromise Security Council resolution according to which the UN will contribute additional forces to supervise early elections – without waiting for a new draft Constitution.

If this culminated in the transfer of power and sovereignty to the elected representatives of the Iraqi people it would dramatically lift a huge military and financial burden from the coalition forces, while securing the UN’s participation in aiding the reconstruction of Iraq. The occupying powers should resist the temptation to leave it to the Governing Council they appointed to decide either the nature of the constitution or the date of future elections.

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