Whoever you vote for, Washington wins

IssueMarch 2005
Feature by Milan Rai

The elections in Iraq have been an unprecedented opportunity for ordinary people to influence the destiny of their country, but the National Assembly they have elected is so hedged in with US imposed restrictions that the cabinet it produces will be more like a chain-gang of prisoners than an independent government. A prominent Iraqi politician in the Shia coalition told the New Yorker in January that the US had quietly told the parties before the election that there were three conditions for the new government: it should not be under the influence of Iran; it should not ask for the withdrawal of US troops; and it should not install an Islamic state.


One important but neglected issue is the steady re-Ba'athification of the security forces under US direction. This re-Ba'athification is hotly rejected by the majority Shia coalition,and is therefore a key issue for the new government.

The British mass media, as elsewhere, has concentrated on the division of power between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities, and on how power may be shared between the different elements of the “winning” Shia coalition. What has not been examined is the framework within which the newly-elected National Assembly, and the soon to be appointed “Iraqi Transitional Government”, must operate.

Devices for control

What has also been off the agenda, due to a colossal act of media self-censorship, is the division of power between the elected Iraqi National Assembly and the unelected US-led occupation. There are several levers of power that the US has created to retain control.

One US device is the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), an interim constitution written in Washington and imposed on Iraq in March2004. Jawad al-Maliki, member of Daawa, one of the two main Shia parties, has pointed out correctly that “the body which we have elected has more legitimacy than this document”.Unfortunately, the T AL is self defined as the default constitution of Iraq until a permanent constitution has been adopted in a referendum.

In a clause bitterly rejected by the Shia majority parties, the TAL states that the permanent constitution must obtain the approval of at least one-third of the voters in sixteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces. This was put in to give Kurdish provinces a veto over the final text (it also gives Sunni-dominated provinces the same veto).

If this veto is used by the Kurds, the T AL continues to be the constitution. (And, according to Article 59 of the TAL, the Iraqi military will continue to function under US command.)

The effect of these provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law is to give the US government's most loyal clients in Iraq-the Kurds--a powerful veto over political progress.

Another device for US control is the debt relief plan put together in November 2004,under which some of Iraq's creditor nations will for give some of Iraq's debt (in stages), conditional upon the Iraqi government following an IMF “liberalisation” programme. This pro -gramme will prioritise foreign investors, privatisation, and “tax reform”, but not unemployment or poverty in Iraq.

The new Iraqi government will have to choose between defying the rulers of the inter national economic and financial order, or following the IMF . Following the IMF will also mean pursuing the economic re-structuring and privatisation set in motion by US administrator Paul Bremer during his time as ruler of Iraq.

Sticks not carrots

The main tool of US control is, of course, military . As the Financial Times pointed out recently, “US leverage rests upon awareness among the Shia that their government is unlikely to survive a civil war without continued US sup port”. The Shia coalition that won the greatest number of votes in the election had to announce its list of candidates in the Convention Centre in the US-controlled”Green Zone” in Baghdad, “protected by US soldiers”.

Points of leverage

In November 2003, when the US unveiled an earlier version of the “handover” process, a senior US official told the New York Times, “It's a gamble, a huge gamble. But it' s easy to overestimate the degree of control over events we have now and to underestimate how much we will retain.” Another senior official said that even after the establishment of the interim Iraqi government, “We'll have more levers than you think, and maybe more than the Iraqis think.” Among the levers the US expected to be able to use: the US military presence itself; the $20bn US reconstruction budget for Iraq;and the requirements of US investors.

Another device for maintain ing control was Paul Bremer's appointment of key officials for five-year terms just before leaving office. In June 2004, the US governor ordered that the national security adviser and the national intelligence chief chosen by the US-imposed interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, be given five-year terms, imposing Allawi's choices on the elected government. Bremer also installed inspectors-general for five-year terms in every ministry, and formed and filled commissions to regulate communications, public broadcast -ing and securities markets.

Who's security?

It is in the area of national security that Allawi' s choices are most significant. A former Ba'athist himself (see JNV Briefing 67), Allawi restored former servants of the Saddam regime to important posts, and has filled the security forces with former Ba'athists. Sad dam's Special Forces soldiers and former intelligence officials are even being rehired as a police commando strike force. Last summer Allawi' s government appointed Rasheed Flayeh to the post of director-general of the secret police force, despite objections from theSupreme Commission for De-Ba'athification that as head of security in the city of Nasiriyah, Flayeh had takenpart in the brutal suppression of the 1991 Shia uprising.

Last October, Allawi tried and failed to disband the De-Ba'athification Commission (headed by his old rival Ahmed Chalabi). Allawi wanted to be able to openly readmit former senior Ba'athists to power unless they have been found guilty of serious crimes in court, a policy supported by the US government. The Shia coalition that has “won” the elections has vowed to reverse re-Ba'athification, and it is likely that Allawi's enthusiasm for this policy will bar him from being a compromise prime minister in the new government.

Topics: Iraq