Global Policy Forum

Iraqi Government Wins Vital Backing


By Suleiman al-Khalidi

June 3, 2004

Iraq's new government won a precious vote of confidence Thursday from the country's top Shi'ite cleric, who urged it to erase the marks of occupation and secure full sovereign powers from the United Nations.

As Baghdad's foreign minister prepared to put his case to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear, however, that the sovereignty Washington is offering on June 30 will be subject to 138,000 American soldiers having the last word on any actions they deem essential. New President Ghazi Yawar said Iraq must quickly rebuild its own security forces to replace foreign troops and said former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party should be welcomed back to provide expertise -- at least those innocent of grave crimes.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a CIA-backed former Baathist who turned against Saddam in the 1970s, has also sought allies among the old Iraqi military. He told his first cabinet meeting on Wednesday that security was the "number one priority" in the run-up to Iraq's first free elections, planned for January. The cautious endorsement of his interim administration by Ali al-Sistani is a valuable one indeed. The reclusive ayatollah holds great sway over many of Iraq's 60-percent Shi'ite Muslim majority, which was oppressed by Saddam's secular Sunni regime.

Though he is rarely seen outside his home in the holy city of Najaf and always refused to meet U.S. governor Paul Bremer, Sistani's objections scuppered an initial plan for the transition to Iraqi self-rule and brought forward the deadline for elections at which the Shi'ites' electoral numbers will carry great weight. "The hope is that this government will prove its worthiness and integrity and its firm readiness to perform the mammoth tasks it is burdened with," Sistani said in a written statement that noted Allawi's team lacked "electoral legitimacy."

Though hedged with conditions, it was a far warmer tone than he adopted for the previous, U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

Sovereignty Demand

Sistani listed four key tasks: restoring security, providing basic services for all, a new U.N. resolution granting Iraq full sovereignty and free and fair elections in the new year. "The new government will not have popular acceptance unless it proves through practical and clear steps that it seeks diligently and seriously to achieve these tasks," Sistani said. He said the U.N. resolution must hand Iraq sovereignty in all "political, economic, military and security" ramifications, and said the government would also be judged on how far it could "erase the consequences of occupation" over the past 15 months.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he would help shape the resolution when he addresses the 15-nation Security Council later on Thursday: "This is a very important resolution for us. And definitely we need to have our own input."

France, Russia and China, all veto holders, have complained that the U.S.- and British-sponsored first draft gave Iraq too little control over the U.S.-led multinational force that will stay in the country after the political occupation ends. Russia and France say a second draft was still not good enough. "The text needs serious work," Russian deputy foreign minister Yuri Fedotov said.

Powell, in an interview with Middle East Broadcasting, said in some of the clearest language yet from Washington that the Iraqi government would have no "veto" over U.S. military actions -- effectively contradicting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He said the fully sovereign government could make agreements with the U.S. military, but added: "There could be a situation where we have to act and there may be a disagreement and we have to act to protect ourselves or to accomplish a mission. "The resolution does not talk about a veto over any military operations," he said. "You can't use the word 'veto."'

Baathist Recruits

Stressing the need for Iraqi security forces, Yawar said it was time to recruit former Baathists. Bremer oversaw a strict program of "de-Baathification" after the fall of Saddam, although the occupation authority has changed tack recently. "Reconciliation means reorganizing the social forces, especially those that were in the old regime ... who had no power or influence and were not tools of persecution against the people in the hands of the regime," he told al-Mada newspaper.

"Reconciliation...does not mean depriving our country of the qualifications and expertise of those who did not commit crimes," said the U.S.-educated civil engineer and Sunni tribal leader who was appointed in defiance of Washington's wishes. Violence poses a grave threat to holding elections. President Bush said he expected Allawi's government to face particularly heavy attacks over the handover. A single guerrilla rocket strike on a U.S. base in the northern city of Kirkuk sparked a massive series of fires and explosions overnight but no casualties were reported.

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