IRAQ: UN backs plan for US puppet regime
On February 19, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan endorsed of Washington's plan to install a non-elected Iraqi government at the end of June. Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, said on February 27 that he would accept a US-installed government on condition that it had "a limited and clear mandate" and existed "for a few months only".
Under a November 15 agreement between the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority and the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, all of whose members were handpicked by CPA head Paul Bremer, the CPA was to appoint the members of 18 regional caucuses, which would then select delegates to a transitional national assembly. The assembly was to select an executive and ministers to whom the CPA would formally hand over "full sovereignty" on June 30.
Under this plan, the Iraqi people, 60% of whom are Shiite Muslims, were not to get to elect a government until at least December 2005.
The CPA-IGC plan, as the Boston Globe noted in a January 24 editorial, would allow the US occupation authorities "to arrange things so that two-thirds of the delegates selected would be US appointees".
Recognition of this led to widespread protest demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, both Shiites and Sunnis, in December and January, and to Sistani calling on the CPA to hand over power to a popularly elected Iraqi government.
Then, in mid-January, Sistani hinted at a possible compromise. The January 19 New York Times reported it had been told by a Sistani spokesperson that "if the United Nations plays an active role" in the hand-over process, this would "legitimise the assembly".
That same day, Bremer met with Annan to formally request UN involvement in the "transition process". Sistani then issued a decree on January 23 calling for a halt to protests against the CPA-IGC plan "until the United States and the UN clarify their positions".
After consulting with French President Jacques Chirac at a "working lunch" in Paris, Annan announced on January 27 that he had accepted Bremer's request.
Annan opposes elections
On February 19, Annan told reporters at the UN offices in New York that he believed that elections "cannot be held before the end of June, that the June 30 date for the handover of sovereignty must be respected, and that we need to find a mechanism to create a caretaker government and then prepare the elections later".
His remarks came after a UN team, headed by former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, had spent a week in Iraq ostensibly investigating whether popular elections could be held before the end of June.
Earlier on February 19, Bremer announced at a press briefing in Baghdad that the CPA would go ahead with the supposed "transfer of sovereignty" to an unelected Iraqi government on June 30. He also made it clear that this would not mean an end to the US occupation of Iraq.
"I think people tend to confuse the 30th of June and the departure of the Coalition Authority, which I represent, with somehow the end of the American presence in Iraq", Bremer told journalists. "And this is, of course, not true. First of all, the Coalition Authority will become the world's largest embassy... There will be thousands of American government officials from all of our major departments still working here... And there will be 100,000 American troops and tens of thousands of coalition forces still here..."
In a February 21 interview on a Dubai-based TV channel, Bremer declared that Brahimi's mission had concluded that "technical problems" — the lack of an electoral law and voters' lists — precluded the holding of national elections in Iraq for "between a year to 15 months".
However, the February 18 Wall Street Journal reported that such alleged technical problems have not stopped elections being held for local councils in smaller towns around the city of Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. There, the CPA had "followed a suggestion by Shiite leaders and used the oil-for-food ration list as the electoral roll".
Councils created through such elections, the WSJ reported, "ended up with fewer tribal sheikhs and Islamic clerics than the temporary administrations run by local notables chosen by the US Marine Corps", which had controlled the area in the first months after the US invasion.
"The experiment with democracy in small towns around Nasiriyah, however, has led to new tensions between Shiite religious movements and occupation officials", the WSJ reported. On February 18, thousands of demonstrators demanding an election for the Nasiriyah-based provincial administration marched on the CPA's fortress-like compound in Nasiriyah, "brandishing assault rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, and chanting anti-American slogans".
"The occupation forces came to this country saying they'll bring democracy, but now they have become the main obstacle to democracy", one of the protest organisers, Aws al Khafaji, the regional head of the Sadr Office, one of the main Shiite religious movements in Iraq, told the WSJ.
According to the March 2 Washington Post, US officials have junked the regional caucuses plan and are considering other options. It reported that one "possible approach would be for a national conference of 200 to 300 Iraqis, an idea similar to the loya jirga assembly held to select a new government for Afghanistan after the fall of the ruling Taliban".
"Sovereignty" in Afghanistan is nominally exercised by a government headed by Hamid Karzai, a former Afghan exile who worked in the US as a manager for the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal). Washington imposed Karzai as Afghanistan's president through the unelected 502-member loya jirga (a grand council of tribal chiefs), which was convened in June 2002 by Brahimi, who was then Annan's special envoy to Afghanistan, and Zalmay Khalilzad.
At the time, Khalilzad was US President George Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan. He had previously been the liaison between Unocal and the Taliban government — negotiating the construction of a 1700km pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to a Pakistani port.
The Karzai government's real authority does not extend beyond Kabul, the capital city, and it is an open secret that Karzai acts on the "advice" of Khalilzad, now the US ambassador to Afghanistan.
The February 29 edition of Time magazine provided the following description of the "sovereign" Afghan president: "Karzai is lonely. He is huddled, as always, deep inside his presidential palace in Kabul, protected by towering stone walls, growling dogs and US bodyguards. Visitors to the palace must undergo three separate body searches before passing through the arched gates, all under the gaze of trained marksmen standing sentry in a watchtower.
"On this day in February, a driving blizzard has made Karzai's lair seem even more forbidding. Only one person gets through unchallenged: Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Afghanistan...
"Karzai, who out of fear of assassination rarely leaves the palace, asks Khalilzad how things look in the country he governs but almost never sees. Khalilzad unfurls a large map and points out various reconstruction projects marked in red and green ink — a network of roads and schools and irrigation canals that will be built, he says, as soon as the US and NATO bring order to Afghanistan."
While Washington, with the backing of UN officials, claims that "technical problems" preclude holding nationwide elections in Iraq, US officials claim there are no such obstacles to staging country-wide elections in Afghanistan this June. The February 17 Washington Post reported that Khalilzad insists these elections will go ahead despite the fact that "no political parties have been officially recognized, no electoral law has been enacted, and security problems have limited registration to major cities in a country with a 70% rural population".
Chalabi to take over
In Afghanistan, Washington wants the appearance, at least, of a national election so as to be able to proclaim that Karzai's government has "democratic legitimacy". In Iraq, Washington is adamantly opposed to holding a national election until it has an Iraqi puppet regime already in place, and can therefore use such a government to ensure that elections give the regime a "democratic" facade.
A major political difficulty that Washington's faces in Iraq is that its favourite to head an Iraqi government — former exile Ahmad Chalabi — is widely seen as a US stooge. According to the March 8 edition of Newsweek magazine, "when the US-run administration in Baghdad takes confidential polls to gauge public support for its hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council, Chalabi's approval ratings are 'the most negative by far' among the 25 members, says an official who's perused the results."
After noting that a "huge stain on Chalabi's reputation, widely known in Iraq, is his conviction in absentia for massive bank fraud in neighbouring Jordan during the 1980s", the article reports that Chalabi, as head of the IGC's economic and finance committee has "has overseen the appointment of the minister of oil, the minister of finance, the central bank governor, the trade minister, the head of the trade bank and the designated managing director of the largest commercial bank in the country".
"Chalabi's other major source of strength", Newsweek reports, "is the De-Baathification Commission, which he heads. Its mandate — to work against former members of Saddam's regime and his Baath Party — is so wide-ranging that even one of Chalabi's aides calls it 'a government within the government'. It's empowered to oversee educational reform, track down Saddam's funds, purge senior Baathists from government jobs and occasionally reinstate those who can convince the commission they weren't complicit in Saddam's crimes...
"Both Iraqi and US officials in Baghdad say it's almost certain that on June 30, the government that does receive sovereignty — and the purse strings — will be either the current, appointed council, or some variation on it. Will Chalabi and his people still be in place, still powerful? You can just about bank on it."
From Green Left Weekly, March 10, 2004.
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