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[casi] Middle East Report: The Iraqi Governing Council's Sectarian Hue

The Iraqi Governing Council's Sectarian Hue

Raad Alkadiri and Chris Toensing

August 20, 2003

(Raad Alkadiri, director in the markets and countries group
at PFC in Washington, serves on the editorial committee of
Middle East Report. Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East

Passage by the UN Security Council of a resolution
"welcoming" the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) reignited
debate over the legitimacy of the body as a representative
of the Iraqi people. The resolution, approved on August 14,
2003 by a vote of 14-0, with Syria abstaining, pointedly
refrained from "recognizing" the IGC as a proto-government,
saying instead that the council is "an important step" in
the direction of an internationally recognized and sovereign
entity. Syria, reflecting the position of the Arab League as
well as Arab public opinion, views the IGC as a creation of
US viceroy L. Paul Bremer rather than an institution
representing Iraqis. In Iraq itself, there is no standard
view of the council. Some think it is a first step toward
indigenous governance. Others reject the council as an
entirely unproven body made up disproportionately of
formerly exiled groups that pushed "regime change" on the
West throughout the 1990s and have very few constituents in
the country. There is also a pronounced sectarian hue to
opinions of the IGC -- with Shiites more willing to give it
a chance than Sunni Arabs.

The IGC certainly cannot be called a democratically
constituted body. While Bremer did not unilaterally decree
its composition, the council's 25 members were selected
through negotiations between the so-called Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA) and a limited number of Iraqi
political groups and personalities whom the US chose to
recognize. The creation of the IGC revived the political
fortunes of formerly exiled groups, particularly the Iraqi
National Congress headed by Ahmad Chalabi, which were
rapidly becoming marginal in the aftermath of the war, as
the US discovered how little support they had among Iraqis.
Chalabi and other exile figures will no doubt continue to
assert claims of legitimacy that outstrip reality.

It is far from clear that the UN's grudging "welcome" to the
Iraqi Governing Council, issued a full month after Chalabi
and fellow council members Adnan Pachachi and Aqila Hashimi
traveled to New York to request recognition, will hasten
Iraq down the road to a sovereign, indigenous government.
The resolution is better understood as fulfilling the Bush
administration's need for good news about the Iraq
reconstruction and political transition process, which, as
in so many other areas, has not lived up to the confident
pre-war predictions. But, in the long term, the greatest
portent of the IGC could lie elsewhere. By insisting that
IGC membership rigidly adhere to Iraq's sectarian and ethnic
demographics, Bremer and the occupation authority have
explicitly made these issues the fundamental organizing
principle of government for the first time in Iraq's


The creation of the Iraqi Governing Council illustrates the
occupation authority's efforts to respond to Iraqi
grievances and to isolate groups resisting its presence. The
25-person council, which met for the first time on July 13,
was intended to signal that the US and Britain are devolving
political power quickly to Iraqis, in an attempt to deflect
local criticism of their performance in restoring security
and basic services like
electricity and water. Bremer originally aimed to establish
a purely advisory committee, but opposition from most Iraqi
political parties and groups -- including the Supreme
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and
Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali
Sistani -- combined with the deteriorating security
situation convinced him to revise his initial plan.

Bremer negotiated the formation of the IGC with a number of
political players, but he chose to give overwhelming primacy
to the views of the main pre-war opposition parties and
their allies, the so-called "Group of Seven," most of whom
were outside Saddam-controlled Iraq during the last two
decades of war and sanctions. In addition to the Iraqi
National Congress, his interlocutors included SCIRI, the
more liberal wing of the Shiite al-Dawa Party, the Iraqi
National Accord headed by Iyad Allawi, the Kurdish
Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and
Pachachi, foreign minister of the government overthrown by
the Baath Party in 1968. To protect their newfound clout,
some of these parties worked hard to block figures who had
remained in Iraq throughout Saddam Hussein's rule from
getting seats on the council. SCIRI is reported to have
demanded a veto over prospective members as a condition of
its membership.

Beyond a broad commitment to federalism, the political
visions of the Group of Seven have little in common. Opening
statements from IGC members also betrayed deep-seated
differences over the ongoing relationship with the
US-British occupation, with SCIRI's representative Abd
al-Aziz al-Hakim calling for a quick evacuation of foreign
troops while Chalabi lauded the US role as liberator of
Iraq. Tensions between the parties, and between the former
exiles and those representatives from inside Iraq, will
linger, and internal battles have already bedeviled the
council's few substantive deliberations.


The IGC has been granted some executive powers, probably
more than Bremer would have liked, including oversight of
the national budget and selection of Iraqi ministers and
diplomatic representatives abroad. Thus far, however, the
council's proceedings are hidden from public view,
sharpening Iraqi suspicions that it has paltry authority in
practical terms and that its core political groups are no
more capable of working together now than they were when in
exile. Its main achievements to date have been to establish
subsets of itself, first with the creation of a nine-member
executive body in late July, and subsequently setting up
security, finance and other sub-committees. Unable to agree
on one leader, the IGC decided that the presidency of the
executive will rotate monthly in Arabic alphabetical order,
beginning with al-Dawa head Ibrahim Jaafari. On August 12,
the council appointed a national constitutional commission
that, according to Jaafari, will "move with all segments of
society to decide on the best mechanism" for the eventual
design of an Iraqi constitution, which presumably would
prepare the ground for national elections. But the relative
secrecy of the commission's membership (it is known to
include Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor and
Chalabi strategist who was a vocal proponent of the war, and
veteran Kurdish politician Sami Abd al-Rahman) and the
absence of any clarity regarding its workings, underscores
the IGC's lack of transparency and feeds Iraqi doubts about
its independence of the CPA.

Indeed, while the IGC has nominal power to determine broad
national policy guidelines, it has yet to do so in any
meaningful fashion. Deliberations over who would lead the
IGC highlighted the divisions among the council's members,
and suggested that the constituent parties are driven as
much by competition for power as they are by any long-term
vision for Iraq. Indeed, beyond announcing the
constitutional commission, the IGC has busied itself with
internal debate and symbolic decisions. Even those have met
resistance. The council's cancellation of the former
regime's schedule of holidays, and its proclamation that
April 9 (the date Baghdad fell) would henceforth be Iraq's
national day, played to hosannas in the US press. But the
news fell flat in Iraq: crowds in Baghdad marked July 14,
the anniversary of the 1958 coup that toppled the monarchy,
and the IGC was quickly forced to explain that April 9 would
be just one of Iraq's national holidays after widespread
unhappiness at the prospect of celebrating the occupation of
the country.

Although it is early days, what the IGC has failed to do in
the eyes of most Iraqis is to address the personal and
economic needs of ordinary people  security, electricity
and jobs, to name a few. A security committee set up under
Allawi has been long on statements and short on action 
beyond ensuring its own security. Like the CPA, the IGC
operates from a building protected from its putative
constituents by concertina wire and two US military
checkpoints. After the August 7 bombing of the Jordanian
embassy in Baghdad, the council acquired a 120-man Personal
Security Detail (and announced that its members would
receive salaries of $4,000 per month, over ten times the sum
received at present by technocrats running Iraq's various


Although its initial performance has been far from
auspicious, it is still too early to pronounce the IGC a
failure. Iraqi politics is in a state of flux. Given ongoing
resistance to the occupation, the immense expectations of
most Iraqis and the dearth of US strategic leadership in
most areas, it is not surprising that the council has taken
time to find its sea legs. True, the main IGC parties
continue to act true to form, able to agree on very broad
guidelines (notably that they should be the main power
brokers in post-Saddam Iraq) and little else, but over time
this could change. Faced with ever more executive
responsibility, key groups within the IGC could coalesce to
form an effective leadership. Already, technocratic council
members less burdened by the baggage of exile opposition
politics are showing signs of coming together in a coalition
designed to counter the weight of the Group of Seven.

Ultimately, the IGC's success will depend on more than just
its members' ability to overcome party politics. Equally
important will be its relations with the CPA. There is no
doubt who the real power in Iraq is at present. As Bremer
comes under more and more pressure from Washington to
deliver tangible signs of progress in Iraq, moreover, he may
be less willing to engage in policy coordination with the
IGC. Should this pattern emerge, the IGC will quickly come
to be seen by large numbers of Iraqis as little more than a
tool of the occupation, a development that could lead
parties within the council to withdraw (tacitly if not
explicitly) from its activities.

A second determinant is the willingness of the IGC to make
tough decisions. The objectives outlined by the CPA in Iraq
suggest that the population is set to face more rather than
less economic hardship in the medium term, while Bremer
moves ahead quickly with the downsizing of the public sector
and the liberalization of the economy. Iraqis affected by
these moves will add their voices to the already loud
complaints about economic insecurity. Caught between the CPA
and a more antipathetic Iraqi population, the IGC may be
reluctant to associate itself with the unpopular policy
decisions, perhaps trying to bolster its own rather limited
social base through open opposition to Bremer. A more
populist stance from the IGC will not help the process of
reconstruction, but it could set up a nasty confrontation
between the occupying powers and their chosen Iraqi


Even if the IGC can overcome these challenges, it will
continue to pose a structural danger to Iraqi political
stability -- because of how it was created in the first
place. Washington has always had an erroneous and very
simplistic understanding of Iraqi politics and society,
seeing it through the narrow prism of sectarianism and
ethnicity. In doing so, US decision-makers have ignored the
maze of socio-political identities in Iraq and the
complexity of its society. Based on their misconceptions of
Iraq, US officials -- and the exiled Iraqi political groups
they have sponsored -- have advocated a political framework
that would bring together representatives of the Shiite
Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations in a federal
structure reflecting the relative demographic strength of
the three groups. This formula has found its expression in
the IGC.

But in giving flesh to this view of Iraqi society, the CPA
has created a bad precedent. The occupation authority has
fundamentally altered the political balance of power in Iraq
in favor of both the Shiites and the Kurds. Fourteen IGC
members are Shiite -- five of whom represent parties that
are overtly sectarian -- and a further five are Kurdish
politicians who favor policies with a clear ethnic bias.
Only four members are Sunni Arabs, and in contrast to their
Shiite and Kurdish counterparts, none are members of
organizations that espouse palpably sectarian or ethnic
platforms. Indeed,
popular religious Sunni leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmad
al-Kubaisi in Baghdad, have been excluded from the council.

At the same time, the US propensity to equate Sunnis with
Baathists and the latter with "Saddam loyalists," combined
with the fact that most attacks on US forces have taken
place in the "Sunni triangle," has meant that Sunni Arabs
have borne the brunt of US counter-insurgency operations.
All this has exacerbated fears among Sunni Arabs that they
are being purposely marginalized, something that could
encourage the community to organize on a sectarian basis in
the future and to provide at least tacit support for violent
resistance to the CPA. Observing this dynamic, the liberal
Shiite intellectual Laith Kubba has written in the Financial
Times that the IGC should expand its ranks to embrace
members from the Sunni triangle. Otherwise, latent tensions
between Sunni Arabs on one side, and the Shiites and the
Kurds on the other, will be heightened, potentially laying
the foundations for the "Lebanonization" of Iraq.

Unwittingly, Bremer and the CPA may have already started
Iraq on the road to Lebanonization by composing the IGC
according to a sectarian and ethnic calculus. A national
election may have thrown up a similar result in terms of
numbers, but the CPA is blind to the subtle distinction
between the outcome of a popular vote and formal, external
sectarian engineering of Iraq's first post-war governing
structure. Debates over membership of the leadership
committee, in which Shiite leaders also demanded a majority,
suggest that the IGC will not be the only government
structure founded on this sectarian-ethnic principle, and
that the Shiites in particular will continue to demand a
built-in majority in various state institutions. If the new
cabinet, which the IGC has been debating throughout August,
is also appointed with sectarianism tacitly or explicitly in
mind, the fact will not be lost on most Iraqis. Sectarianism
will not be the only factor determining interactions between
political groups and the creation of future coalitions, but
the CPA may have rendered it the most important factor for
the time being.

The fall 2003 issue of Middle East Report (MER 228) in
print, due out in early September, will focus on the
perilous situation in US-occupied Iraq. Subscribe to Middle
East Report via a secure server on MERIP's home page:

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