Global Policy Forum

Will Iraq's New Prime Minister

May 23, 2004

In eight days or so, Paul Bremer, the US proconsul in Iraq, will stand up in the vast conference centre in Baghdad with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative in Iraq. Between them will be the man who has been selected to be the first prime minister of post-Saddam Iraq.

Already the position has been offered to one - as yet unnamed - candidate who has yet to accept the job, his identity known only to senior officials in London, Washington and Rome and other capitals of the coalition forces. On his shoulders rest the hopes for a peaceful outcome for Iraq. For, as officials make clear, it will be in the announcement of the identity of the new prime minister - and not the formal 30 June date for hand-over of sovereignty - that Washington and London are putting all their hopes for the redemption of Iraq: the birth of a democratic, unified and sovereign state.

Few have any doubt that the new prime minister will have little time to make a difference in a country whose mood has soured against the occupying powers; perhaps a month at most. And with demand for an 'exit strategy' growing on both sides of the Atlantic, think-tanks, chancelleries, defence ministries and business risk strategists are drawing up the likeliest scenarios and contingencies. The brightest outlook is that embraced by Downing Street, the White House and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

It envisages a new beginning, with the announcement of a new prime minister and interim government and, following the progress towards elections next year and the drafting of a permanent constitution, optimists hope that Iraqis will work towards a democratic civil society and the marginalisation of the men of violence. 'A lot of weight will fall on the shoulders of the new prime minister,' concedes David Richmond, Britain's special representative in Baghdad. 'I think he will have a fine line to walk from his appointment at the end of May until the handover at the end of June, and he will have to deliver a message that there should be no sectarianism.'

It is only one of the messages that the new prime minister - who is likely to be drawn from the Shia majority - will have to get across if the transfer of power to a new government is to work. While the prime minister is working with his new government, Richmond explains, he will also need to convince Iraqis of all backgrounds that the interim government represents an end to occupation and a step towards elections next year. 'On 30 June,' says Richmond, 'there is going to be a real change. The occupation is going to end. The Coalition Provisional Authority is going to be dissolved. Ambassador Paul Bremer will leave.'

It will be a new start. And the view shared by Tony Blair and George Bush is that, given the right leadership, Iraq has the capacity to heal itself, in the process of building a new civic society that will eventually marginalise those involved in the present violence. 'I have no doubt that there are divisions in Iraq,' says Richmond, 'and they have been exacerbated.' But he adds that, despite atrocities intended to tear apart Iraq's ethnic groups - including the bombings of the Shia ashura ceremonies earlier this year - there is still more cohesion in Iraqi society than potential for division. 'What will also be important is that a few days after the announcement of the prime minister, the electoral commission will be announced and the new prime minister is going to need to put a lot of emphasis on the fact that the elections are going to happen.'

What happens next, he believes, is up to Iraqis, with the security support of what will then be known as the multinational forces, which will be there at the invitation of the new government. 'What I am struck by is how many Iraqis say they do not define themselves as Shia or Sunni, but Iraqi, which is why I am optimistic that it will work and that, over time, this belief in Iraq will grow. We will get over this period of instability and the elections next year will work.'

Richmond is optimistic, too, that Iraqis will pursue consensus rather than divide over guarantees for minority rights or the role of religion in the state, issues that divide the more secular Kurds and the majority Shias. The most depressing scenario is that the very same mechanisms that Richmond hopes will lead to greater cohesion - a new government, elections and negotiations for a permanent constitution - have the opposite effect, becoming the focus for irreconcilable differences between the ethnic groups.

This second scenario is one that has been propounded by the former US ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, a veteran of the fracturing wars of the former Yugoslavia, who also served with the UN in East Timor. 'Americans like to think that every problem has a solution, but that may no longer be true in Iraq,' wrote Galbraith in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. 'Early in 2005,' believes Galbraith, 'Iraq is likely to see a clash between an elected Shia-dominated central government trying to override the interim constitution in order to impose its will on the entire country, and a Kurdistan government insistent on preserving the de facto independent status that Kurdistan has enjoyed for 13 years.

'Complicating the political struggle is a dispute over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, involving Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Sunni Turkmen and Shia Turkmen. 'It is a formula for civil war.'

A second version of Galbraith's doomsday scenario was presented last week in a more unexpected place, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army's War College, which published a 69-page report entitled 'Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities and Insights'.

Its authors point to a second fault line in Iraq that they believe could lead to civil war, again with its roots not in the Sunni insurgency in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, but within the Shia majority. And author W Andrew Terrill believes that the difficulties being faced in the transition of sovereignty should not be underestimated. 'In Vietnam, we were trying to prop up a government that had little legitimacy. In Iraq, we're trying to weave together a government and support it so it can develop legitimacy. Both are extremely hard to do.

'The main threat to state-building in Iraq lies not in the insurgency in central Iraq but rather in the potential for the recent uprising of Shia militants to re-ignite, expand, and include large elements of that community, or the development of the kind of sectarian civil war that plunged Lebanon into near anarchy for almost two decades.'

This pessimistic outlook is shared by Gareth Stansfield of Exeter University, who has lived in Iraq and is one of the contributing authors to the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House's own set of scenarios for the future of Iraq, to be published on 28 June. Like Galbraith, Stansfield believes that the most likely point of fracture in a new sovereign Iraq is between Kurds and a majority Shia government over issues like the status of religion in the new state. 'If you ask me what are the chances of democracy succeeding in the next few decades, I don't see much chance. So the real question for me is: what kind of state will it be? There is a chance of a dictatorship, but I think the chances of the integrity of the state surviving are about as implausible as democracy.'

If the Galbraith and Bush/Blair scenarios for Iraq stand at two ends of a spectrum, perhaps the most likely outcome is a partial success, which produces a government and elections that have a limited effect on the high levels of violence, produce lit tle opportunity for calling troops back home, and where Iraq holds together - just. Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House, is among those who doubt whether the future of Iraq is likely to be cut and dried. She agrees, however, that the biggest problems are likely to be encountered in negotiating a new constitution. 'I do not see 30 June as being the be-all and end-all,' says Hollis. 'The major problems lock in only when Iraqis begin trying to devise a permanent constitution, especially negotiating the veto that has been given to the Kurds under the interim Transitional Law and determining the role of religion in the new state.'

Hollis is uncertain, too, as to whether Iraq can now be held together either by the Americans or under the auspices of the UN. 'If the answer to both those questions is no, is the answer then some kind of national movement of liberation that would unify Iraq?' The question, she believes, is whether foreign forces should remain if they become the sole focus of violence.

While Hollis is struck by historical parallels - including the Lebanese civil war - she does agree with many British and US officials that there will be a very short honeymoon period in which the new interim government will have the chance to make an impact and in which the US will have to show it has genuinely relinquished control. 'It has got to hit the ground running. It has got to change the dynamic of what is happening in Iraq and the perceptions of ordinary Iraqis of what is going on.'

And what most troubles Hollis about a middling scenario, halfway between success and failure, is the politi cal effect on the electorates in the US and Britain. 'If it is not getting better and it is not getting worse, you ask yourself, how long the British public would put up with it?' Hollis's view - that any outcome is likely to be far more complex than that expected by either the optimists or the pessimists - is shared by Josh Mandel, an analyst with Control Risks, which advises businesses on both the risk to their personnel and to their investments.

Mandel, who recently returned from Iraq, says he was struck most by a sense of uncertainty over where Iraq was heading after 30 June. 'I was just amazed how people there still have no clear picture of what will happen after the transfer of sovereignty.' Mandel is worried that the most likely scenario for Iraq - rather than either a strong national government of unity or a civil war of the kind envisaged by Galbraith - is a kind of 'Afghan' outcome: a weak government in Baghdad, beset by divisions, in control of ineffectual and partisan security forces, and with a continued potential for lawlessness and terrorism.

'I just can't see a significant potential for a reduction in foreign forces in 18 to 20 months' time, as some believe. It will be at least two or three years at the same levels we have now. 'If I were advising investors, I would say there was a very high degree of risk of getting involved in Iraq in the next five years. I still remain sceptical about the whole civil war and fragmentation scenario. But I am much less certain about that than I was four months ago. 'I do think it is very unlikely that we will have strong central government or a federal system that functions throughout the country.'

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