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Road to Legitimacy in Iraq

March 01, 2004

The United Nations' first step to reestablish its authority in Iraq was solid, in that it satisfied neither Iraqi Shiites clamoring for quick elections nor U.S. overseers hoping an unelected government would suffice until Iraq was far more stable. U.N. officials also dispensed some good news last week to both sides, reassuring Washington that sovereignty could be handed over to Iraqis by June 30 and telling Iraqis that direct elections are indeed possible, though not for many more months. The burden on Iraqis now increases, and the U.N. needs to offer specific advice on how to ready the unstable country for self-rule.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority last November belatedly set a date of June 30 to yield political power. But it suggested a convoluted plan of caucuses across the country to select an interim government. The key leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, instead demanded direct elections. Shiites account for about 60% of Iraq's population, and Sistani's obduracy forced the U.S. to scrap the caucus proposal. That led Washington to finally acknowledge the need for U.N. help.

The U.N. team, led by special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and a skilled diplomat who has worked in postwar Afghanistan, agreed with Washington that free and fair elections could not be held by June 30. The country lacks voter rolls, election law and, in many parts of the country, security for Iraqis as well as U.S. troops. But Brahimi found a consensus among Iraqis to stick to the June 30 handover date; he urged the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqis to have "a more focused dialogue" on what sort of government would assume sovereignty on that date.

The U.N. should not decline to propose specific solutions. Brahimi has the advantage of Sistani's willingness to meet with him; the cleric speaks with the occupation officials only through intermediaries. The U.N. could recommend expanding the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council to include more ethnic subgroups and letting it oversee the writing of a constitution and balloting for the interim legislature. It might consider holding local elections first in the north, where the Kurds predominate, and the south, where most Shiites live. Both areas are more peaceful than the central "Sunni Triangle" near Baghdad.

Sistani has never indicated that he favors rule by mullahs in the style of neighboring Iran. He has already moved his demand for direct elections to the end of 2004 and should now urge Shiites to cooperate politically with minority Sunnis and Kurds, without whom Iraq cannot remain unified. The U.S. will have to reach agreement with the post-June 30 government on keeping troops in Iraq to provide security while a national army and police continue to be trained.

These difficult steps will be easier if the U.S. yields as much political authority as possible to the United Nations before its self-imposed deadline. A government seen as speaking for Iraqis and supported by the U.N. would have legitimacy that one imposed by an occupier lacks.

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