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Defiant Iraq Council May Be Just Playing Its Part

October 07, 2003|Graham E. Fuller

Call me a conspiracy theorist who's spent too many years in the Middle East, but doesn't it seem that the growing "confrontation" between Washington and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is actually just magnificent theater with deceptively clever goals? If it isn't intentional, it should be, because such a confrontation is about the only way Washington is going to get any kind of moderate Iraqi government in place.

Ahmad Chalabi, who is the highest-profile member of the Governing Council and has long been the Pentagon's preferred exile candidate to take over post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, has been frustrated that he was not immediately placed in charge after Hussein's fall. Many in the Pentagon also apparently consider this failure to make him de facto ruler a fateful policy error that has contributed to Iraq's growing descent into instability. We'll never know whether Chalabi could have successfully won acceptance in the immediate aftermath of the war, despite being little known in Iraq, but one thing is sure: Direct installation by the Pentagon would have condemned him to eternal puppet status.

Even as a member of the council, Chalabi owes his current position to occupation overseer L. Paul Bremer III. And it's not just Chalabi. All the members of the council do. Indeed, the group is commendably representative in sectarian and ethnic terms, but that doesn't necessarily give them cachet in the eyes of the Iraqi public.

How then does an American-appointed body demonstrate that it is, in fact, a nationalist force and not a tool of American rule? Simple: It needs to be seen as leading the national struggle against U.S. occupation, angrily wresting away authority from Bremer inch by inch.

If Bremer gets angry, expresses dismay and uncertainty about the pace of events or the problems of the Governing Council, all the better. Jail a few of them. Remember that legitimacy can only be derived from resistance against the occupier, not by its blessing. Let Iraqis cheer on the council's advances made against American will.

Because if the council doesn't take on Bremer vocally, it will only lose ground to those who are already doing so, with guns. Don't forget what happened to Aqila Hashimi, a council member who was assassinated, most likely by Hussein loyalists who believed her a traitor.

The resistance forces that are killing Americans and those they view as collaborators, and who are leading the opposition to occupation, are largely led by Sunni radicals, long the most favored element in Iraqi society under Hussein. It's the stuff of future national myth.

The real danger is that, bit by bit, many Iraqis will come to see these forces as the most legitimate nationalist force in the country, the one paying in blood to drive out the occupiers.

And so far the moderates -- including the Shiites who hold a plurality of the 25 seats on the council -- have sat on the sidelines and devoted their energies to sorting out power relations among themselves. As the majority, they believe that they have the "right" to become the dominant force in Iraq's first real elections.

So what better way to help legitimize these moderates than to have them stage their own "revolt" against Bremer, demanding power and authority faster than Washington seemingly wants to release it? This is probably the only way that they can upstage the bloody guerrilla struggle being led today by the Sunnis.

Are we already witnessing a bit of theater with Chalabi's "anger" at Washington's slow pace? At least, let's hope this indeed is a clever political charade.

If it isn't, the Governing Council is headed for the dustbin of history and the truly radical and violent forces are poised to claim the mantle of Iraqi dignity and independence, over the dead bodies of Americans.

Graham E. Fuller is former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA and author of "The Future of Political Islam" (Palgrave, 2003).

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