Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The US Squandered the Chance for Democracy in Iraq | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55297832

This Thursday, March 14, 2013 photo shows a general view of the crossed swords monument at the site of an Associated Press photograph taken by Karim Kadim of U.S. soldiers taken on Nov. 16, 2008.(AP)

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, and in the hope of averting the approaching catastrophe and stemming the dangerous drift to war, I decided to convene an urgent meeting of all the secular and democratic opposition forces. That meeting was held on February 13, 2003, and was attended by a number of prominent Iraqis who shared my opposition to any American military intervention to topple the Iraqi regime.

We appealed to the international community to join our efforts to prevent war. We supported the proposal of the UAE’s Sheikh Zayed that Saddam be allowed to relinquish power voluntarily, and that then the United Nations and the Arab League would appoint a provisional Iraqi government authorized to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly that would draw up a new constitution for the country.

On the eve of the war that America unleashed on Iraq on March 20, 2003, I issued an urgent and final appeal against military intervention. After the outbreak of hostilities, we hastened to convene a conference in London on March 29, 2003, to deal with the problems which would arise after the fall of Saddam’s regime.

I envisioned the following steps:
1. Ending the military occupation of the country.
2. The installation of a transitional Iraqi authority to manage the affairs of the country during a short interim period.
3. The immediate lifting of sanctions by the Security Council.
4. The appointment of a United Nations Special Representative, who would conduct extensive consultations with a view to convening a conference to elect a Council of Sovereignty, whose first task would be the appointment of ministers and heads of departments.
5. The transitional authority would be given the means to keep peace and order in the country and revive the stagnant economy.
6. The introduction of laws to ensure honest and fair elections under international supervision for a constituent assembly that would draw up a new constitution for the country.
7. The new elected government would try to reach agreement with the representatives of the Kurdish people on the right of self-determination.

I emphasized that as Iraqis, we believed in democratic, secular, liberal values. Furthermore, we rejected sectarian divisions by affirming our national Iraqi identity and working for the establishment of a democratic, secular, liberal government.

The first thing that struck me on my return to Iraq on May 6, 2006, was that many Iraqis, especially the young, believed that the US presence, even as an occupying power, would benefit Iraq. They were impressed by US achievements, particularly in science and technology. There was hope that Iraq’s hard-working people and the country’s great natural wealth would, with American guidance and assistance, make Iraq one of the most advanced nations in the world.

All those hopes and expectations soon disappeared, to be replaced by frustration, anger and resentment. So what went wrong? This was the question asked with some emotion by Colin Powell when I saw him in Abu Dhabi in 2010. I was touched by Powell’s anguished lament, which I fully shared, and asked myself time and again why Iraq’s brief experiment in democracy failed.

First, change came as a result of a war of doubtful legality, which the UN Security Council refused to endorse.

Second, the United States came to Iraq without a clear and coherent plan to move the country from dictatorship to democracy.

Third, the US was unprepared to take over the administration of the country and shoulder the responsibility of maintaining peace and order in the wake of the total collapse of government structures. In these circumstances, the first responsibility of the occupying power to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy and lawlessness should have been to reinstate the police and security services.

I discussed the security issue with [former US Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad when he came to see me in Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, nothing was done and the occupying troops had to act as policemen. They were neither trained nor equipped for such a task and at the slightest provocation they used excessive force against Iraqi civilians.

A fourth reason was that corruption was rife. While Iraqis had become inured to corruption after years of sanctions and administrative mismanagement, they did not expect the complicity of some American officers and officials in pushing projects of doubtful benefit and legality that cost Iraq billions of dollars. Some of that money is still not accounted for.

Finally, perhaps the most serious mistake the US made was to organize the new political system in Iraq on a sectarian basis. They had the preconceived idea that Iraqi society was, by its nature, divided along sectarian lines. That was a fallacy at the time. As a result, the secular groups did not receive the recognition they deserved and the government fell under the influence of religious and ethnic parties. Fully exploiting their built-in advantages, they established a regime that proved over the years to be incapable of governing the country.

My fear that their incompetence and corruption, and particularly their subservience to Iran, would result in Iraq becoming a failed state has unfortunately been borne out.

The most tangible result of US involvement in Iraq has been the consolidation of Iran’s influence and power in the country. The US had the means to prevent this, but lacked the will and determination. I, like most Iraqis, am still at a loss to understand why the United States squandered the historic opportunity to make a success of democracy in Iraq.

In September 2003, I had an excellent opportunity to expound my views when Kofi Annan invited me to come to Geneva to meet him and the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council. I went to Geneva accompanied by my trusted public relations assistant, Fareed Yassine. The ministers and the secretary-general were discussing a new American draft resolution on Iraq.

There were several amendments introduced by France that were similar to our position. On my part, I proposed several amendments to both the American and French drafts. In addition to meeting with the secretary-general, I met the foreign ministers of the United States, France, China and Russia. The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was absent.

My meeting with Colin Powell, the US secretary of State, was stormy and acrimonious. He rejected my proposal to abolish to Coalition Provisional Authority and expand the Governing Council and transfer full powers to it, and he insisted that the transfer of power should occur only after the formation of a government elected under a new constitution.

My response was that elections for a constituent assembly should be held first, followed by the drawing up of a new constitution, which would have to be approved by the Iraqi people in a referendum, and then followed by elections for a legislative body that would choose the constitutional government. I said that all these things would take a long time and the Iraqi people were impatient and wanted to end the occupation and have in place an Iraqi government as soon as possible.

My presidency of Iraq’s Governing Council ended on January 31, 2004, and in the following weeks I was fully occupied in drafting the interim constitution. My main contribution was the inclusion of a Bill of Rights, which I consider to be my principal legacy to Iraq.

It went further than anything in our region and was the cornerstone of the new Iraq we were trying to build. The interim constitution was unanimously adopted by the Governing Council; I spoke on the day of the signing, March 8, 2004, extolling the Bill of Rights, which I said must be preserved and protected. I answered those who expressed doubts about the ability of Arab and Muslim societies to absorb the essential values of democracy by saying that those values were universal and were as pertinent and necessary in the Arab and Islamic countries as they were elsewhere.

The constitution in its present form is not a good document except for the Bill of Rights that was taken in its entirety from the interim constitution. It is full of loopholes and vague about the division of responsibility between the regions, provinces and the central government. Within that constitution, the powers of the executive, the legislative and the judicial overlapped and were not clearly defined.

It is obvious that the constitution has to be amended sooner or later, but this is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

After ten years, Iraq today is a failed state, unable to provide security and the minimum requirements for a decent life to its citizens. Iraq faces two major challenges. The first emanates from Iran, which is using the Shi’ite political parties in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world as tools in its grand design to dominate the region. The second challenge comes from the religious political parties, both Shi’ite and Sunni, which are trying to establish various forms of theocracy and to halt the drive for modernity.

The only way for Iraq to resist this dual challenge is by creating a strong and determined opposition combining the younger generation with all the liberal, secular, democratic and non-sectarian elements and the educated elite of the country.

All this will depend on the ability of Iraqis to overcome their sectarian prejudices. The religious and ethnic political parties, which thrive on such divisions, will do everything in their power to keep communal and confessional antagonisms alive.