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Iraq: Washington Says Country Could Soon Have Sovereign Government

The U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, says general elections could be held within a year for a sovereign government. The announcement appears to speed up a political transformation of Iraq into a more democratic state, a process many U.S. officials had previously suggested could take years. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at why Washington is now emphasizing a rapid handover of power to Iraqis, even though the U.S.-appointed interim Governing Council is just weeks old.

Prague, 1 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. officials are increasingly sending the message that Iraq could have a sovereign government within a year.

The U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said yesterday in Baghdad that "it is not unrealistic to think we could possibly have general elections by mid-2004." He also said that once elections are held, his current job of running the country will be over.

"When a sovereign government is installed, the coalition authority will cede [authority] to that Iraqi government, and my job here will be over," he said.

This is not the first time that Bremer has suggested that his Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) could turn power over to the Iraqis in a matter of months. He has usually coupled that with a warning that progress depends on how quickly Iraqi leaders themselves act to prepare the ground.

But Bremer's words this week carried particular weight because he spoke just one day after U.S. President George W. Bush also suggested that general elections could "soon" be held in Iraq.

Bush told reporters in Washington, D.C., that Iraq is on its way to becoming a stable state in charge of its own affairs. He cited as evidence Iraq's recently inaugurated Governing Council:

"The Iraqi Governing Council is meeting regularly. Local police forces are now being trained. And citizens are being recruited into a new Iraqi military -- a military that will protect the Iraqi people instead of intimidating them. Soon, representatives of the people will begin drafting a new constitution, and free elections will follow."

Such statements signal that Washington may now want to speed up the political transformation of Iraq into a more democratic state, a process many U.S. officials had previously suggested could take years.

In past speeches, Bush and top cabinet members have emphasized Washington's readiness to stay in Iraq -- and specifically to keep troops there -- "as long as necessary" to foster the development of a more democratic system and to restore the country to self-rule.

The officials have rarely quantified just how long "as long as necessary" might be. But U.S. General Tommy Franks, who last month stepped down as head of the U.S. forces in Iraq, recently estimated that American troops would have to remain up to four years.

However, domestic political pressure has been mounting on Bush -- who is running for re-election late next year -- to make it clear to the American people just how lengthy, and how expensive, Washington's occupation of Iraq is going to be.

That pressure has grown as almost daily guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops have killed 52 soldiers since the administration declared major combat in Iraq over on 1 May. The number of soldiers killed in hostile action since that date is now larger than the number killed during the March/April war.

At the same time, some U.S. lawmakers have publicly criticized the White House for failing to provide advance estimates of how much reconstructing Iraq will cost.

This week, the director of the U.S. government's Office of Management and Budget, Joshua Bolten, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the cost of reconstruction this year alone will be some $7.3 billion. That is in addition to the current cost of stationing some 150,000 American troops in Iraq -- about $4 billion per month.

Bolten and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also said it is impossible to estimate how much reconstruction might cost next year.

Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, demanded that the White House be more forthcoming with its budget estimates in the future. He said: "I think you're going to lose the American people if you don't come forward now and tell them what you know, that it's going to cost tens of billions of American taxpayers' dollars and tens of thousands of American troops for an extended period of time."

Some analysts say the recent signals that a handover of power could now be just a year away may be intended to quiet some of this criticism. Any handover would be an important psychological boost not just for Iraqis who want self-rule but also for Americans who are becoming increasingly restive with occupying Iraq on an open-ended timetable.

Mike Clarke of the Department of War Studies at King's College in London says it is common in occupation situations for governments to talk about speeding-up elections. He says that is because elections are a powerful sign that the occupying government has an exit strategy.

"That is always the exit strategy, in the sense that once you can say there have been free and fair national elections, and preferably local elections, then you can say, right, our job is done," Clarke said. "Whatever else happens now, it is not our responsibility. These people have taken on their own destiny. So there is a natural tendency to want to say that and to talk [early elections] up."

But Clarke says that forecasting early polls in Iraq is premature because the situation there is still too troubled to assure the elections would improve stability. He says that, after many conflicts, holding early elections has tended to strengthen interfactional rivalries and deepen divisions, only increasing instability.

The analyst says that until Iraq's infrastructure can be restored to the point of reviving the economy, and until law and order is no longer a problem, the CPA will need to remain clearly in control of Iraq. That is necessary because the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which took office on 13 July, is very much in the early stages of establishing its own authority and popular legitimacy as it arranges for the writing of a new national constitution, among other tasks.

Clarke said: "If you weren't looking for an exit strategy here, you would say it is going to take a year to get the Governing Council functioning as a sort of moderately competent decision-making unit. And it's going to take at least that, and probably another year superimposed on that, to develop a constitution which will meet everyone's requirements."

He continues: "And then, after that, you might be able to have national elections on the basis of a new constitution. But even on an optimistic forecast, that puts an election at least two years away."

In Afghanistan, where a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001, a new constitution has yet to be approved, and the country's first democratic elections are not scheduled for another year at least.

That may mean that this week's talk of speedy elections in Iraq is better read as a political message than as a prediction of what will happen in the immediate future. Which is not to say it has no value. As Clarke notes, the talk could at least spur Iraq's diverse parties to cooperate more closely as they face the challenge of drafting a constitution -- the first tough test they will have to pass before any general elections can be scheduled.