BAGHDAD, Iraq – The interim administration in Iraq takes on the mantle of sovereignty this week. And then the tough work begins: organizing and holding three national elections and drafting a new constitution in 18 months, all the while trying to rebuild the country and holding the insurgents at bay.
If things go according to plan, Iraq will emerge as a democratic state in a region of authoritarian rulers, and American and other foreign troops can go home.
But the road is littered with potential mine fields.
Elections could put Shiite Muslim political parties with ties to Iran in power and set the stage for a clergy-dominated theocratic state.
A sharp escalation in terrorist attacks could upend the transition timetable or lead to a military-backed authoritarian ruler being voted into power by Iraqis more interested in an end to bombs, bullets and kidnappings than in Western-style democracy.
And skeptics question whether, under even the best circumstances, Iraq’s conservative, tribal-based Muslim society – divided both ethnically and religiously – can produce anything resembling the democratic dreams of those in Washington who promoted the war.
After the transfer of power on Wednesday, the next step is to stage a conference of about 1,000 prominent Iraqis to choose an interim national council that will advise the interim government, and keep an eye on it, too.
Influential sheiks and clans that did not get posts in the new government are likely to be represented on the council. A 60-member commission has been working for weeks to identify those who will be invited to the conference, which is to be held sometime in July.
The idea for the monitoring council is to expand participation in the political process. It’s hoped that will allay fears of the influential Shiite clergy that the new government, dominated by Westernized figures with close links to the Americans, will make decisions on the future of Iraq that the clerics think should await a future, elected leadership.
National elections are to be held in January to choose a transitional government.
A tall order
Electing a new leadership only seven months after the interim regime takes over might seem unnecessarily burdensome, given the precarious security situation and the fact that new electoral laws and voter rolls have to be drawn up from scratch.
It’s the result of a compromise between the Shiite clergy and the U.S.-led occupation authority.
Shiite clerics, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, had demanded elections before the June 30 transfer of sovereignty. But the Americans argued that Iraq was too unstable for a safe and fair ballot to be held that soon – and they also feared extremists might win seats in a quick election.
With Shiites accounting for an estimated 60 percent of the population, the clerics assume their followers will win any fair national election.
The prospect that American blood and treasure were spent to create an Iran-style Islamic state worries some U.S. officials.
Although nearly all prominent Shiite politicians discount this possibility, the major Shiite parties – notably the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party – have ties to Iran, a Shiite theocratic state and U.S. foe where many of the Shiite leaders spent years in exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
The U.S. crackdown on radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in April appeared to be an attempt to curb the influence of militants who want an Iran-style fusion of religion and politics.
The delay in voting is a gamble. There is no guarantee security will be any better in January than it has been in recent months. Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of the Multinational Corps Iraq, said some U.S. commanders believe the insurgents may lie low for months, then launch major attacks closer to election time.
U.N. elections chief Carina Perelli, who is helping organize balloting, said the first major test will come by September, when voter registration is scheduled to begin.
The specter of car bombs targeting crowds waiting to register, or later to vote, is alarming.
“The whole issue of fear is going to be a theme in this election,” Perelli said in New York this month.
Fear could prompt voters to turn to candidates they believe can restore order at any price. In a country without a democratic tradition and a long history of strong central leadership, instability could play into the hands of candidates with ties to the military and police, such as interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
And any further delay in elections would be risky. Al-Sistani’s aides have long feared the appointed interim government could exploit the security crisis to cancel the January vote and hold on to power, and a postponement could trigger unrest among Shiites.
After the January election, the newly elected government is to convene a national convention to draft a constitution, which would be put to the voters in October 2005.
That won’t be a simple task. Many touchy issues, such as the status of the Kurdish autonomous region in the north, the role of women and the position of the Islamic faith in secular law have all been deferred until the constitutional convention.
If Kurds, who form about 15 percent of the population, believe their aspirations for self-rule are threatened, secessionist sentiment could rise. That would not be welcomed by the governments of neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran, which have their own restive Kurdish populations.
Under the interim constitution approved in March, the permanent charter would fail if a majority of voters in just three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject it. That gives the Kurds an effective veto since they control three provinces.
But such a move would likely trigger a grave national crisis since many Shiites oppose the Kurdish veto.
If Iraqis overcome those hurdles, they face one more step – yet another election in December 2005 for a constitutionally based government.
With that fourth and final step, the political process enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution enacted June 8 would come to an end – and with it the mandate for the American-led multinational military force.
Only then would the U.S. troops be able to go home.
Members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps direct traffic Saturday in Baghdad. Extra forces have been called onto the streets in advance of the hand-over of national sovereignty on Wednesday.