The evolution of Iraq from a brutal dictatorial regime led by Saddam Hussein to fledgling democracy in the Arab world is not going as smoothly as Bush administration planners had hoped.
While this is no surprise to anyone who has followed politics in the Middle East, it is causing huge problems for those involved, as decisions being made now could have a big impact on President George W. Bush's bid for re-election later this year.
There are a lot of chefs in Iraq's political kitchen these days: the Bush administration led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority which is overseeing the reconstruction of Iraq; the U.S.-appointed political leadership in Baghdad known as the Iraqi Governing Council; other religious and tribal leaders in Iraq such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shi'a cleric; and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and other diplomats from countries on the security council.
The problem is that not everyone has the same goal in mind, even though there was agreement last Nov. 15 on a transitional plan which would lead to Iraqi sovereignty by June 30. If carried out as designed, the Bush administration -- and more importantly the Bush re-election campaign -- would have been able to deliver on its pledge to bring at least the first signs of democracy to Iraq. — But as seen in so many things regarding Iraq, nothing seems to go according to plan.
Currently, the biggest obstacle is al-Sistani, whose Shiite followers make up at least 60 percent of Iraq's population. Al-Sistani wants direct elections, which would obviously favor Shiite control. He has locked horns with Bremer and the Bush administration, which favor caucuses in each of Iraq's 18 provinces that would select a transitional government.
Backroom attempts at compromise have so far failed and, as if anyone needed to be reminded of al-Sistani's political powers, it was no problem at all this week to get a turnout of 20,000 Shiites in Basra to demonstrate in favor of direct elections.
As with everything in Iraq, there are also demands from the Kurds, who want autonomy in the Northern part of the country, and from the Sunnis, who ran the country for the last thirty years under Saddam.
This standoff with al-Sistani, however, is the driving factor in Bremer's return to Washington for a round of meetings to bridge this difference of opinion. While in the U.S., Bremer will also make a presentation in New York City to Annan on the CPA's latest proposals and, moreover, on the need for the U.N. to return to Iraq and play what the administration has called a "vital role" in Iraq's political transition.
Annan has called for a series of meetings on Jan. 19 to examine the U.N.'s future role in Iraq. Representatives of the IGC will brief Annan and the Security Council on their own plans, which may not completely agree with Washington's views.
Some see great irony in Washington seeking help from the U.N., which it found itself at odds with last year on the basic issue of how to oust Saddam. While a greater U.N. role would represent some relief for the Bush administration as the occupying power, the fact is the U.N. has a lot of expertise and experience in running elections and transitions in countries undergoing systemic political changes.
Secretary General Annan has his own problems, the biggest being the one he faces from his own staff. The U.N. withdrew from Iraq after last summer's tragic bombings at their Baghdad compound, killing nearly two dozen U.N. staffers who were based in Iraq. When Annan does decide to send the U.N. back, he'll be under great pressure to see to it the security for his staff is far better than in the past.
And since Amb. Bremer cannot guarantee even the security of heavily armed American troops, there's no real likelihood he can do better for U.N. personnel. The Secretary General also wants a clearer understanding of the U.N.'s role, as seen by the U.S. and by the Iraqis. That makes Annan's handling of the usual political differences among council members seem like a more manageable problem.
So, as Mr. Bush gathers his policymakers in Washington for meetings, one can only hope that in Bremer's briefcase there's a political recipe for "democracy stew, Iraqi-style" which uses lots of different ingredients, is simple enough for the cooks to understand, and is palatable to international tastes.
By Charles Wolfson