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Iraq: Pushing Aside UN, Governing Council Takes Matters Into Own Hands

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> In a shift away from a process that had appeared to be led by the United Nations, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has taken control of deciding who should serve in an interim government due to take power next month. The UN appears flustered by the council's power grab, and doubts remain about whether the new government will enjoy any legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis.

Prague, 31 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For weeks, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has led a major effort at the behest of the United States to put together an interim Iraqi government capable of assuming power from Washington next month and leading the country to elections next year.

Brahimi's lead role was unquestioned, as U.S. President George W. Bush made clear just on 28 May. "Our government and our coalition will transfer full sovereignty, complete and full sovereignty, to an Iraqi government that will be picked by Mr. Brahimi of the United Nations," Bush said.

But even as Bush spoke in Washington, events in Baghdad were moving in another direction. The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council had unanimously chosen one of its own -- Iyad Allawi, a former Ba'ath Party exile with close CIA contacts -- to be prime minister of the new Iraqi interim government.
The decision appeared to catch the UN off-guard -- not least because Brahimi had favored a government of technocrats with few links to the Governing Council.

The decision appeared to catch the UN off-guard -- not least because Brahimi had favored a government of technocrats with few links to the Governing Council.

The United States quickly welcomed the nomination. But UN spokesman Fred Eckhard, asked on 28 May if the UN "welcomed" the appointment of Allawi, indicated otherwise. "I want to stick very closely to the wording I used before: Mr. Brahimi respects the decision and is prepared to work with this person on the selection of the other posts in this interim government," Eckhard said.

But by today, the Governing Council was already moving forward, nominating political candidates for cabinet posts -- again, choosing mainly from within its own ranks. It is a move that has prompted concerns the new government could lose all legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis.

The last remaining decision is over who will succeed Saddam Hussein as president. Even if the office is expected to be largely ceremonial, the choice of president exposed deep disagreements between the Governing Council on the one hand and the UN and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority on the other.

Talks today to decide the remaining cabinet posts were delayed until tomorrow at Washington's behest after the parties failed to agree on a presidential candidate. The postponement sparked complaints from the Iraqis that Washington is unduly interfering in the process.

The Iraqis have been pushing as their candidate Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, a civil engineer in his 40s who left Iraq in 1990. U.S. officials want the position to go to Adnan Pachachi, a pre-Hussein-era foreign minister now in his 80s. Yawir, a Sunni tribal leader, is considered a moderate but more independent than Pachachi and likely less supportive of U.S. policies.

Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told Reuters today in Baghdad that the UN and the United States were interfering in what should be an Iraqi-led process. "The United Nations was supposed to take a strong and independent role," he said. "We have not seen this, and we think the Americans are the ones who are making the decisions."

Jawad al-Bulani, an aide to the Governing Council from the Iraqi Hizballah party, added that Brahimi and L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, were seeking to marginalize council members in the talks and were not consulting Iraqi groups outside the council.

Yet others say the Governing Council, at least in its choice of Allawi, has worked to marginalize Brahimi, with some help from the United States. "There is actually a history of antagonism, a history of distrust of the United Nations [in Iraq]. And it's just [council members] safeguarding their interests," said Adel Darwish, an independent Egyptian-born analyst who lives in London.

Darwish told RFE/RL that he believes the council members, in deciding the makeup of the government virtually on their own, were in part acting from a historical antagonism that Iraqis have toward Brahimi and the UN. He said former Algerian Foreign Minister Brahimi, as a top official of the Arab League in the 1980s, never spoke out against Hussein's atrocities against Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ites.

Darwish added that a recent corruption scandal over the UN's "oil-for-food" program, in which members of the world body may have profited handsomely from doing business with Hussein, did not help the UN's credibility in Iraq.

But Darwish also said that in choosing Allawi, the council members appear to be safeguarding their own interests. Allawi comes from their ranks, and yet does not have the kind of base of popular support that could allow him to become too independent. "So, there is actually a mixed sort of blessing and curse within this choice of Iyad Allawi. But in the balance of probability, it is positive," he said. "He's a unifying figure. He's Shi'a, but not subscribing to the Islamic republic idea. And he's secular."

Some members of the Governing Council said security was a main consideration in choosing Allawi, a former Ba'ath Party fugitive who founded an exile group made up of former officers from Hussein's military. Commentators in the Western press note that Allawi would be unlikely to request the withdrawal of U.S. troops during the run-up to elections, expected next January.

Darwish said that if the interim government can help improve security and services, then Iraqis will come to view it as a legitimate body. But the analyst noted that the interim government will also need to make efforts to improve Iraqi civil society and communication with the population.

He said there is also a fear that Allawi's elevation to prime minister could help bring back more former Ba'athists, on whom the United States has already begun to rely to quell violence in Sunni strongholds such as Al-Fallujah. "The fear is that it might be a back door to bringing back the Ba'ath Party. If that ends up bringing back the old regime, the Ba'ath Party -- some kind of erosion of liberal ideas, of democracy and representation -- then it's not good news." Darwish said.