What Iraq needs from a handover
What Iraq needs from a handover
A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse
A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse

What Iraq needs from a handover

The June 30 deadline for the transfer of power in Iraq is unrealistic, unworkable - and virtually unavoidable. Scrapping the deadline, as some have suggested, is not the answer. What is needed is to redefine what the deadline represents. One would hope that members of the United Nations Security Council had this in mind yesterday when Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special adviser, outlined his plans for Iraq.

For a start, it would be best to give up the fiction that the June 30 deadline has anything to do with "transferring sovereignty". As a legal matter, sovereignty is already vested in the Iraqi state and "embodied" in its interim institutions. But as a practical matter, the sovereign power exercised by the new Iraqi government will be incomplete and to pretend otherwise could do lasting damage to the very notion of sovereignty in Iraqi eyes. That does not mean the June 30 deadline should be ignored. By now, too many Iraqis have come to expect it and too much US credibility is invested in it; even Iraqis originally sceptical of the timetable would be quick to denounce its overturn.

Instead, the deadline should be seen as a meaningful opportunity to narrow the growing gap between the occupation's governing institutions and the Iraqi people. Four interrelated steps, based on - but going beyond - Mr Brahimi's ideas are required.

First, political responsibility for the transition should be handed to the UN, acting through an appropriately empowered special representative. Before June 30, the UN would be charged with appointing a provisional government. After that date, it would exercise certain residual powers to supervise the political process, break any deadlock between Iraqi institutions and act as a check on Iraqi executive decisions that may exceed its limited mandate. The powers of the special representative would be strictly those needed to maximise stability and ensure national elections in January 2005.

Second, the UN-appointed provisional government of technocratic experts should mark a clear break in character and membership from the current Interim Governing Council. This body would run daily affairs and prepare for general elections with the special representative's advice.

Third, to widen political participation, a national conference of Iraqis should be convened sand should elect a consultative assembly. The assembly should have the power to reject the composition of the new government and any decrees it passes, with the UN special representative acting as final arbiter in the case of deadlock.

The proposed national conference could also be an important first step towards creating a sense of collective ownership and a common political platform that eschews violence and commits participants to work for a democratic political system. So far, the Iraqi people have been virtual observers of a pas-de-deux between the coalition authority and the Interim Governing Council; if they are not truly involved in the process, they can hardly be expected to defend it.

Finally, security arrangements should be redefined by a Security Council resolution that re-authorises the US-led multinational force from June 30 until an elected government takes office and decides its future. But recent violence in Falluja and elsewhere demands one big change. In future, the force should require the approval of the Iraqi provisional government for major offensive operations. Of course, operational matters involving force protection and responses dictated by immediate events must continue to be a matter for the military command alone. But where strategic choices are involved and the multinational force is acting after deliberation, it is both possible and necessary to co-ordinate with the Iraqi government if the deadline is to involve any meaningful power shift.

In short, whatever happens on June 30 will at best involve a delegation of something far less than sovereignty to a body falling far short of being representative. What Iraqis should be getting is more power - and the space to create a more inclusive and cohesive polity - but still necessarily incomplete sovereign power until proper general elections are held. To minimise the friction associated with this power transfer, residual civilian powers should be exercised during the transitional period by the UN, not the US.

The options available today are few and bad, a measure of the staggering misjudgments that have plagued post-war management from the start and there is no guarantee that even these steps can stem Iraq's descent toward instability and civil war. Nor is there any guarantee that this approach will find takers. But a U-turn from a stubborn administration and engagement from a sceptical international community may represent the last remaining chance of success.

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