Last week, an Iraqi exile named Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi strode into Baghdad and declared himself mayor, meeting with local sheiks and promising them potable drinking water and electricity. “With your help, we can manage our country by ourselves,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying. Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who has been tapped for administrative responsibility over Iraq’s capital, was forced to tell reporters that the United States did not recognize Zubaidi’s authority.
But Zubaidi isn’t the only one eager to fill the power vacuum left by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Last week, both Ahmed Chalabi, a senior member of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress (INC), and his old rival Ayad Allawi, who leads the CIA-backed Iraqi National Accord, also arrived in Baghdad. Both major Kurdish parties have set up offices there as well. In Mosul, a Kurd affiliated with one of those parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), declared himself mayor of the city, sparking riots by the townspeople. Representatives of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim, the head of the Iran-based and -funded Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), have started to assemble large crowds in Basra, Karbala, and Najaf.
“It is vitally important,” says Barhim Salih, the prime minister of the Regional Kurdistan Government, “that an interim national Iraqi authority is established very soon and that it assume responsibility for maintaining law and order and provide public services while preparing for elections as soon as possible.” But, while Salih is undoubtedly right, it’s unclear whether he’ll get his wish. That’s because the Bush administration is as divided over how to replace Saddam’s regime as it was over how to topple it. There is not one U.S. plan to create an interim Iraqi government but, rather, two competing ones—one backed by the Pentagon, the other by the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC)—and this bureaucratic infighting is sowing confusion, delaying reconstruction, and leaving the political field largely open for the worst kind of anti-Western, anti-democratic leaders to rise.
FOR HIS PART, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is pushing a plan that would rapidly establish a new government by merging a council of Iraqi leaders elected by exiles at a March conference in the northern Iraqi city of Salahuddin with “internals,” the Bush administration’s term for Iraqis that have endured Saddam’s tyranny (see “The Wasteland,” page 18). The NSC and the State Department, on the other hand, would like to sponsor a series of town meetings with internals and exiles—like the one held outside of Nasiriya in Ur on April 15—culminating in a large conference in Baghdad, in the hope that Iraqis on the inside, rather than exiles, will emerge as viable leaders for the transitional regime.
Ironically, the Salahuddin conference that produced the leadership panel Wolfowitz would like to empower was, at the time, considered a victory for the State Department, which used the opportunity to marginalize the INC, the one- time umbrella for the Iraqi opposition. In Salahuddin, the INC was only one of numerous opposition groups that it had once held under its wing, including SCIRI and both major Kurdish parties. Alongside Chalabi, delegates to the conference chose Allawi, an ex-Baathist who has received clandestine funding from the CIA since the early ‘90s; Abdul Aziz Hakim, brother of Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim, whose militia is trained by Iran’s military; and the leaders of both Kurdish parties, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. The sixth member of the leadership committee was Adnan Pachachi, an octogenarian former Iraqi foreign minister living in the United Arab Emirates who has been courted by the Saudis and, more recently, by Zalmay Khalilzad, the president’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition. (Pachachi and Allawi have been unclear as to whether they are still a part of this group, making it essentially a group of four and leaving it Sunni-less for now.) The Pentagon plan calls for the group of four to help choose Iraqi internals and develop a power-sharing arrangement to lead an interim authority with input from Washington.
Under the State Department plan, by contrast, everything that happened in Salahuddin would be moot. Foggy Bottom argues that the only way to have a transition authority that will command legitimacy from the Iraqi people is for the selection of this new government to stem from local meetings of both internals and externals. The major difference between this and the Pentagon plan is timing and composition. The Pentagon strategy would establish the interim authority in the coming weeks, while the State Department plan would likely take much longer. Under the Pentagon’s procedure, exile leaders would play a significant role in choosing the Iraqis on the inside; while, under the State Department proposal, leaders would emerge from a series of these local meetings, conferring on them legitimacy through what appears to be a democratic process.
But the legitimacy issue is tricky. While the 80 or so tribal sheiks, ex- officials, and representatives of exile leaders that met in Ur signed a declaration opposing the external imposition of leaders, everyone who attended the gathering was essentially invited by Washington. And, like the intense feuds over the exiled opposition that preceded the war, the administration fought over whom to invite to the Ur meeting. The CIA, for example, proposed many former Iraqi officials and local tribal leaders who had been quietly helpful in the war effort and requested that their names not be made public. The Pentagon, meanwhile, argued for full disclosure and recommended different participants suggested by Chalabi’s people. The Bushies could not even agree on who was supposed to lead the town meeting. As the president’s point man in the reconstruction process for Afghanistan, Khalilzad argued that he had the necessary experience to head the American delegation. Pentagon civilians, worried by Khalilzad’s fondness for Pachachi, insisted the American side be led by Jay Garner. In the end, both attended.
It is unclear exactly what, if anything, the Ur event and any subsequent town meetings will add up to; they may go the way of the Salahuddin conference. There is still no consensus inside the Bush administration on whether there will ultimately be a transition conference in Baghdad. Potentially confusing matters further will be the arrival in Baghdad in the coming weeks of a “governance committee,” cobbled together by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (and vice presidential daughter) Elizabeth Cheney, who previously oversaw reform in the Palestinian Authority. It’s purpose, according to one administration official, will be to monitor how the various new Iraqi ministries are conforming with the overall vision for a democratic Iraq from the White House.
IN THE MEANTIME, both the Pentagon and the CIA are doing everything they can to confer tactical advantages on the Iraqis they favor. Before coalition forces even got to Baghdad, the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and some 700 of his fighting men to Nasiriya from northern Iraq, giving the former math professor a leg up on his political rivals by making him one of the first exile leaders on the ground inside liberated Iraq. In addition, the Pentagon and key senators successfully pressured the State Department to release $4.2 million initially intended to establish a free Iraqi TV station in London to go directly to a separate account to support Chalabi’s activities in Iraq. Meanwhile, the same week that Chalabi was flown to Nasiriya, the CIA released a classified report to senior American officials on the political prospects of exile leaders— claiming, among other things, that Chalabi lacked popular support on the ground in Iraq.
These internecine policy battles have paralyzed the important work of establishing a pro-American Iraqi presence on the ground. Iran has been broadcasting its Arabic-language satellite television, known as Alam, into Iraq since before the war started. But it was only last week that the United States put a satellite TV station for free Iraqis on the air—and only after Radio Sawa, the U.S. pop-music station established last year, agreed to do it. Initially, the TV station was supposed to be run by a separate group headed by Iraqi exiles and American technocrats, but plans to run the station were slowed down by the administration’s various policy quarrels. As it stands, the NSC has been brought in to solve questions as basic as which broadcasters the new interim authority should be allowed to employ. “We are woefully behind in planning,” one American official in the thick of these discussions told The New Republic. “There is too much micromanagement. We need to give someone the go- ahead to help organize things like a police force now.”
With every week that passes, the United States could be losing the battle for influence on the ground. In Najaf, Sayyid Muqtada Sadr, the heir to perhaps the most prestigious clerical line in Shiism, drove his religious rival into hiding by threat of force. In the eastern city of Baqouba, militias trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard stormed into the city last week and executed men they accused of being Baathists. And Iranian intelligence agents have reportedly already infiltrated the Shia neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital and are organizing Islamist parties. We can only hope the Bush administration establishes an interim authority before they do.
This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.