War In Iraq: Political Challenges After The Conflict
War In Iraq: Political Challenges After The Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 11 / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

War In Iraq: Political Challenges After The Conflict

The success or failure of Iraq's post-war transition will chiefly depend on whether domestic realities and dynamics are accurately understood and can be translated into a form of governance that is accepted as legitimate by core Iraqi constituencies.

Executive Summary

The success or failure of Iraq’s post-war transition will chiefly depend on whether domestic realities and dynamics are accurately understood and can be translated into a form of governance that is accepted as legitimate by core Iraqi constituencies. Ultimately, the international community’s task will be to navigate competing claims to power and influence, ensuring a level playing field and not anointing any pretender until a process can be constructed to give voice to the mass of Iraqis who have been disenfranchised by three decades of authoritarian Baathist rule.

The key is to set up as soon as possible (notwithstanding the reluctance of the UN Secretariat to take on so extensive a role, and the U.S. to give it up) a UN transitional civil authority with full executive and legislative powers. This authority would use, to the maximum extent possible, local professionals and civil servants, as well as experts from the diaspora; and during the transitional phase, municipal, regional and functional elections would help designate those Iraqis who, together with the diaspora, can establish the rules by which a pluralistic, democratic and stable Iraq can be governed. This authority would operate alongside a U.S.-led security presence, optimally itself endorsed as a multinational force by the UN Security Council.

The United States and the international community are not entering a vacuum. “Day after” does not mean day one. Iraq cannot nor should it be treated as a tabula rasa. Baathist rule for 30 years and twelve years of international sanctions have profoundly transformed Iraq’s social make-up. New social classes have emerged – a sprawling bureaucracy and civil service; a once potent, now pauperised middle class; resilient entrepreneurs; an impoverished and volatile urban underclass. Tribal and kinship loyalties, at one time vociferously denounced by the Baath, have since been instrumentalised by the regime. Nationalist feelings remain potent, despite the regime’s attempts to hijack them. Even religious sentiment has flourished of late as this once secular state has desperately sought to bolster its legitimacy in the face of growing internal discontent. Many of the forces that sustained the Baathist polity for years should not be expected to collapse simultaneously with the regime.

Given that, who should run Iraq once hostilities have ceased? The first option, assumption of full authority by the United States, has been roundly criticised by members both of the Iraqi opposition and of the international community. Even many U.S. policy-makers acknowledge that it risks alienating Iraqis, exposing Washington to accusations that it nurtures imperial designs and further undermining its posture in the region.

An alternative proposal, based on the rapid establishment of an interim Iraqi authority to which the U.S. would transfer power and with which it would jointly govern, has received more support, as necessary for domestic legitimacy. This interim authority would give way to a permanent Iraqi authority once political conditions (e.g., agreement on a constitution, national elections) permit. But this proposal, too, is flawed. The fundamental problem is that no pre-identifiable, optimal Iraqi candidates exist whom either the United States or the international community can handpick to run an interim authority. Socio-political dynamics in Iraq are complex and too little is known of the actual preferences or aspirations of those inside the country.

Members of the exiled opposition have staked their claim. But their limited contacts with and current knowledge of the Iraqi people cast serious doubt on the degree to which they are genuinely representative. Inside Iraq, numerous forces – among them tribes, religious institutions and business elites – will come forward as well and claim privileged status. But they are likely to be dominated by those who gained prominence during the years of Baath Party rule and compromised with it. It would be a mistake to short circuit the domestic political contest by prematurely picking a winner. Under either of these two scenarios, the bulk of Iraqis inside Iraq – Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Kurd, Turkoman and others who have been brutally disenfranchised for over three decades – would remain voiceless.

The best road for Iraq and for the international community, therefore, is to set up a United Nations transitional civil authority with full executive and legislative powers to run the country until a legitimate, democratic, permanent Iraqi authority can be established. This authority would not have security responsibilities, relying instead on a U.S.-led multinational force (MNF) presence throughout Iraq, which itself would optimally, though not necessarily, be endorsed by the Security Council.

The UN civil authority, while exercising overall supervisory authority, would rely for day-to-day administrative tasks not on UN personnel but, as much and and as early as possible, on vetted bureaucrats, civil servants and qualified members of the diaspora: this will be important to maximise the Iraqi people’s sense of ownership in the transition process.

The present report does not purport to provide a comprehensive blueprint for the work of such an authority: further ICG reporting will address in more detail some of the issues, like transitional justice, with which it will have to deal. Our present purpose is simply to argue that, given the internal dynamics at play in Iraq, an approach along these lines offers a far better chance of maintaining stability through the transition period.

Establishing such an authority is not an easy challenge. Even if the US were prepared to grant it, the UN is not eager to play this far-reaching role; it has not planned for it; it will have to coordinate with a very significant U.S. military presence on the ground; and the longer it is there, the more Iraqis will chafe at not being in charge. To remain in charge too long risks undermining the international community’s legitimacy; to withdraw prematurely risks transferring power to individuals who lack any legitimacy to begin with. While elections are sometimes too glib a solution in post-conflict environments – as ICG has itself argued in other contexts – the key here is in fact to work hard and fast on organising local and functional elections that will begin the process of providing the Iraqi people with genuinely representative leaders.

It may seem inappropriate to talk about the day after the war when the war rages on, its duration uncertain, its precise outcome still unclear. But especially given how poorly the international community managed the situation that led to war, it is important that it do its utmost to properly manage the one that will follow it.

Amman/Brussels, 25 March 2003

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.