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Iraq: Mission Accomplished? U.S. Signals Readiness for New Multilateral Approaches (Part 2)

  • Charles Recknagel --> A year after U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat over in Iraq, it is clear that ousting Saddam was easier than administering the occupied country. The second part of a two-part series looks at how U.S. policy is evolving as it searches for new approaches to establishing a democratic Iraq.

30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The mounting U.S. death toll in Iraq -- and the sharp political debate that it causes at home -- is forcing Washington to seek new approaches to dealing with Iraq's security and political problems.

Most of the new strategies the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is considering have one thing in common -- an increasing readiness to abandon what critics have often called Washington's unilateral approach to Iraq for more inclusive methods.

One example of the emerging new attitude are the signals from the U.S. administration that it might be ready to transfer much of its control over Iraq's future political development to the United Nations.

The U.S. president gave his public endorsement for such a strategy in a mid-April press conference.

Asked by reporters what the first post-Saddam sovereign government due to take power on June 30 might look like, Bush said the matter was being arranged by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq.

Brahimi has yet to put forward his final proposal but it is already clear his approach is very different from Washington's original plans for forming the interim government.

Brahimi's lead role in defining the new government is seen as a major step by Washington toward internationalizing its strategy.
The UN envoy has said he wants the UN to appoint a government of mostly technocrats in consultation with the United States and Iraqi leaders. He also has suggested holding a national conference shortly afterward to choose a popular council to advise the new administration.

Outlining his plan at the UN this week, Brahimi said forming what he called a "credible government" could directly help calm tensions in Iraq.

"The sooner a credible Iraqi government is in place to lead the way, the better, especially because the absence of such a sovereign government is part of the problem in the first place," Brahimi said.

Prior to Washington's acceptance of a UN mediating role, Iraq's political evolution was guided by Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer. The U.S. administrator appointed the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council that now serves as an Iraqi representative body but is widely reported to be unpopular.

Bremer also led Washington's efforts to convince Iraqi leaders to elect the first sovereign government through regional caucuses.

However, those efforts were obstructed by preeminent Shi'a religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who instead demanded a direct vote that would favor the Shi'a majority. The impasse caused all sides to look to the UN to propose alternative ways to form the government.

Analysts say that Brahimi's lead role in defining the coming government represents a major step by Washington toward internationalizing its strategy in Iraq.

Until now, the United States had mainly sought to enlist other states in helping maintain security through the multinational "coalition of the willing" or in helping with reconstruction.

Julian Lindley-French, a security expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, said Washington now views UN involvement as an asset for two reasons. One is an increasing recognition among policy makers that the coming and future sovereign Iraqi governments need to avoid the appearance of being formed by Washington -- an image that would make it easy for opponents to question their legitimacy.

"Ultimately, if there is going to be any security legitimacy in the transfer of authority on 30 June -- and, indeed, what happens in 2005 with the move towards a new Iraqi government -- then if it is seen to be too close to the Americans it is very clear that that would undermine the legitimacy of those new organs of power," Lindley-French said. "So I think the U.S. recognizes that...bringing the UN and others the shortest route possible to some semblance of stability, after which U.S. forces can be drawn down."

The analyst said the second reason the Bush administration now appears to welcome UN involvement is the upcoming U.S. presidential elections in November.

"This is an election year and anything that can shift the burden away from U.S. forces and U.S. body bags is going to be an important factor, let's be blunt about that," Lindley-French said. "The U.S. are taking significant casualties in what is a new kind of warfare in a way which is a major challenge for all the parties concerned."

But there are still many uncertainties regarding what the United States' relation will be with Iraq's caretaker government -- which is to lead the country to elections for a constitutional assembly early next year.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week that sovereignty will be "limited" for the new government in order for it "to get up and running."

Powell also said the U.S. will remain in charge of military and security matters in Iraq -- as well as being Iraq's main source of economic support.

"We would also expect the new sovereign, the new government in Iraq, to invite security forces to stay and to encourage others to come," Powell said.

As the U.S. experiments with giving the UN the lead role in forming the caretaker government, Washington has also signaled it could ultimately seek to cede command for Iraq's security to a multinational organization.

Such a step could help defuse criticisms both abroad and at home that the United States continues to act too single-handedly in Iraq, just as it did in overthrowing Saddam.

The leading organization to which Washington might consider turning over command of Iraq's security is NATO. But the Atlantic alliance, which already commands the multinational security force in Afghanistan, has so far put stringent conditions upon its taking up the role.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer mapped out some of those conditions during a visit last month to Moscow.

"There is no official NATO role in [Iraq]," de Hoop Scheffer said. "And [whether] there is going to be one will depend to a large extent on such questions as -- and that's the most important one -- what will be the opinion of a sovereign Iraqi government and will there be a new Security Council resolution giving a specific mandate to a stabilization force after the transfer of sovereignty."

NATO is currently providing logistical support for a Polish-led division in Iraq. But the alliance is reported to be divided over Iraq.

NATO member Spain is currently withdrawing its troops from Iraq following a change of government. Berlin says it sees no role for German troops in Iraq but would not block a NATO deployment. And Paris has said it could envision sending a NATO force but has not offered to contribute French troops.

Still, Washington appears ready to take steps that could help meet NATO's conditions and set the stage for further talk of the alliance taking a lead role.

The U.S. Secretary of State has said that Washington will seek a UN resolution to authorize more stabilization troops in Iraq. Powell said he is confident a resolution will be approved before the United States is scheduled to hand over political power to Iraqis on 30 June.

(The first part of this two-part series looks at some of the major challenges in Iraq over the past year.)