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Iraq: Questions Remain About Washington's Postwar Strategy

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington is reported to be preparing a postwar scenario for Iraq that envisions an 18-month U.S. military occupation and a civilian administrator for the country. But there have been few indications as to whether the administrator would be appointed by the United States or the United Nations and whether there are also plans for a transitional Iraqi government to serve as a bridge between the occupation and a permanent, democratic government. RFE/RL looks at what is known of Washington's plans and some of the considerations that may be complicating them.

Prague, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is no secret that Washington is planning how it might administer a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq even as U.S. officials say no decision to go to war with Baghdad has been made yet.

The planning for Iraq's future administration is a necessary part of any preparations for a war that the United States has said would replace Iraq's current totalitarian government with a democratic alternative.

But while everyone knows planning is going on, the details of just what a U.S.-occupied Iraq may look like emerge publicly only rarely. When they do, they are the result of leaks to newspapers by unidentified officials and are not acknowledged by the administration. Still, after a number of leaks over the past months, the broad outlines of the U.S. strategy now appear to be set.

"The New York Times" last month reported that U.S. President George W. Bush's national-security advisers envisage an 18-month military occupation of Iraq in which a U.S. military commander would run the country in tandem with a civilian administration.

The paper said the U.S. military commander would wield absolute authority over security affairs, particularly to see that there is no outbreak of ethnic or sectarian fighting. The civilian administration would be tasked with rebuilding the economy, schools, and other infrastructure.

But the report said there is no indication yet of whether the civilian administrator would be appointed by the United States or by the United Nations. It said there is also no clear sign yet of whether there would be a temporary Iraqi government to help lead the transition from an occupation to the establishment of a parliamentary democracy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign-policy expert at the Cato Institute in Washington, said that U.S. planners so far appear to be stymied by disagreements over who might lead a transitional government without drawing charges of being a U.S. puppet. "Washington's chief problem is that they want somebody who has a reliable democratic reputation, who is not just a house-broken version of Saddam Hussein, in other words, not another member of the corrupt Baghdad elite that has been running the affairs of Iraq ever since the Ba'athist regime came to power," Carpenter said. "It's not easy to find somebody that would be both reliable from Washington's point of view and yet would have credibility as an Iraqi nationalist leader. Washington has to be very careful that it doesn't pick a quisling, someone who is seen as a puppet of the United States."

The Pentagon is said to support a strong leadership role in any transitional government for the exiled Iraqi opposition, which is loosely grouped together under the umbrella Iraqi National Congress (INC).

But the State Department is reported to view the Iraqi exiles as too internally divided, and too weakly rooted in Iraq, to lead the country's political evolution effectively.

The debate in Washington over what the exiled opposition's role should be in any transitional government occasionally spills over to the editorial pages of some major U.S. newspapers, giving one indication of the intensity of the disagreements.

"The Wall Street Journal," a strong backer of the INC, recently criticized the State Department's position by complaining that "the INC still finds Washington rife with institutional prejudices and jealousies...the last thing Foggy Bottom [the State Department] wants now is to see the INC playing a leading role in a provisional government."

The State Department is reported to favor entrusting not the INC but Iraqis inside the country with the task of heading any transitional government, possibly together with Iraqis educated in the West to create a "technocrat" administration. The State Department is sponsoring a series of 18 "democratic principles" workshops to bring together Iraqi professionals in the West to discuss the nature of a transitional regime and other aspects of a post-Hussein society.

The Iraqi opposition movement in exile itself has had limited success in forming a unified leadership and has not proposed a possible transitional leader along the lines of Afghan-exile-turned-president Hamid Karzai.

Still, some names of possible candidates appear regularly in the U.S. and Middle Eastern press. One is Ahmad al-Chalabi, a U.S.-educated former banker and INC leader who enjoys strong support from some Pentagon officials and U.S. legislators. Another figure mentioned more recently is Adnan al-Pachachi, an exiled former Iraqi foreign minister.

But observers say these and other candidates are reluctant to be seen as campaigning publicly for leadership of a transitional government, because they want to preserve an appearance of unity in the opposition movement in exile.

Ghassan al-Attiyah, a former Iraqi diplomat and the editor of the London-based publication "Iraqi File," said that many Iraqi exiles also feel that any talk of new Iraqi leaders at this moment simply opens candidates to charges of pursuing their own personal interests. "Any talk of anyone or any faction as the new rulers of Iraq actually plays into the hands of the [Hussein] regime by showing [that] those people are cooperating with the Americans for certain selfish interests, not the interests of the Iraqi people," al-Attiyah said. "To push one name or another is not good for us. If we are to be in any way better than the regime ruling in Baghdad, at least we have to give an example to our people that our only role is as a facilitator. The best thing we can do is to create a team which will help in the transformation of Iraq from dictatorship to democracy, a team which includes Kurds, Arab Shiias, Sunnis, [and] rural and city dwellers, whatever you have."

While Iraqi exiles wrestle with such problems, it is unknown who within Iraq might also seek to lead any transition government. Candidates within Iraq can only be expected to identify themselves if they launch a coup against Hussein or after the United States occupies the country.

Carpenter said some of the potential candidates within Iraq could now be members of the current regime. "Ultimately, if the Iraqi political elite turns against Saddam Hussein and ousts him from power on the eve of war or during the war, the U.S. may have to give a great deal of deference to the wishes of that faction within Iraq, and that could complicate things immensely, because the choice of that faction for the transitional leadership may be rather different from Washington's preferences. This is a very fluid situation," Carpenter said.

Given such unknowns, Washington now appears to have decided not to try to create a provisional government ahead of any invasion, despite some earlier pressure from the exile Iraqi opposition to do so.

Instead, the challenge of forming a transitional government looks likely to be put off until the conclusion of any war in Iraq. That war now could begin very soon. U.S. officials say Washington will make a decision "within weeks" on whether to attack Iraq if Baghdad continues to fail to cooperate actively with UN arms inspectors.

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