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Guest opinion: The Iraqi National Conference: legitimation failure

The Iraqi National Conference, which concluded on August 18, was meant to bestow legitimacy on the transitional regime by providing broader representation in state institutions and a check on the power of the executive.
It did not achieve its objectives and has, instead, widened and deepened the crazy quilt of political fractures in Iraqi society, sharpening divisions, increasing the probability of intensified conflict and drawing the country closer to the stark alternatives of Middle Eastern-style dictatorship and separation into mini-states.

The major business of the Conference was the election of an Interim National Council with 100 members, 19 of whom had been pre-selected from members of the governing council that had been set up by the occupation's Coalition Provisional Authority and who had been excluded from the transitional government. In order to enhance the legitimacy of the transitional government, the Conference would have had to elect a Council representative of Iraq's political forces, especially those outside the exile parties that have thus far controlled the transition. Those outside forces are divided into Sunni and Shi'a Arab rejectionists who oppose and will not participate in the transitional institutions, and smaller parties, civil society groups, ethnic and religious minorities, tribal leaders and independents that seek a greater role in the transition.

That the Conference would not be fully or even significantly representative was assured by the refusal of the rejectionists -- most notably, Moqtada al-Sadr's Shi'a movement and the Sunni Muslim Scholar's Association - to participate. At most, the Conference could make a place for the many groups in Iraqi society that desire to participate in a peaceful transition to general elections. Their inclusion would have signaled that interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's regime was serious about democratization, enhancing the legitimacy of the transitional government in the sectors of Iraqi society that are still opposed to the rejectionists, but are skeptical about the occupation and suspect Allawi of being beholden to American interests.

Rather than moving towards inclusion, the parties that have controlled the transition opted to shape the Council in their image, creating a body that will work in tandem with the Allawi regime rather than holding it accountable. Their choice consolidates their power in the short run, but has alienated the forces that have desired to play a part in the transition and has increased the likelihood that the sectors of Iraqi society that are skeptical of the transitional regime will be driven in the direction of rejectionism.

In retrospect, the Conference was a bid for power by the Allawi regime and its coalition of factions that took place on two fronts. Outside the meeting, held in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Allawi and his American backers initiated military action in Najaf, where al-Sadr's Mehdi Army had set up positions in the Imam Ali Mosque - Shi'a Islam's most sacred site. The aim of the operation was to crush the core of the Shi'a insurgency against the transitional government, while the Conference was going on. Inside the meeting, Allawi's coalition moved to override the opposition to its list of candidates for the Council. The transitional government's two-pronged attack to eliminate both military and peaceful opposition has had problematic results that indicate the lack of even the most tenuous consensus in Iraqi society on the country's political future.

Najaf

From its outset, the Conference was overshadowed in the world news cycles by the confrontation in Najaf between the transitional government, spearheaded by American military forces, and the Mehdi Army. The decision to bring coercive pressure to bear on al-Sadr's movement in order to drive the Mehdi Army out of the Imam Ali Mosque and disarm it came on the first day of the Conference when the government broke off negotiations with al-Sadr that were aimed at ending the rebellion that he initiated on August 4 and bringing his movement into the transitional process.

The government claimed that it had withdrawn from the talks because they were not yielding progress, whereas al-Sadr said that a deal was close to being reached, with only some details to iron out. Whichever side was correct, it is clear that the government did not have to break off the talks abruptly and could have waited until the Conference concluded.

Several factors have been reported that entered into the decision to substitute confrontation for negotiation. The United States was pressing Allawi to adopt a military solution and dispose of Shi'a rejectionism, which, in an insurgent phase, was exposing U.S.-led coalition forces to deadly attack and was threatening the transition itself. The two most powerful members of the United States Senate's Foreign Relations Committee - Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Joseph Biden - had publicly urged Allawi to suppress the Mehdi Army, indicating a bipartisan consensus on a coercive strategy. Allawi was also determined for his own interest to suppress the most serious threat to his regime - any legitimacy that he might hope to achieve depends upon his providing at least a semblance of order to Iraq. Finally, Allawi and his coalition of exile parties might not have wanted a spotlight shown on a Conferencethat they were determined to control.

When the Conference was convened, its working program of discussions aimed at achieving a broadly representative consensus list of candidates for the Council was immediately scrapped and the proceedings were diverted to the Najaf crisis. Despite pleas by the Conference's organizers, representing the parties forming the transitional government, to stay with the program, the Shi'ite Political Council, which had helped calm an earlier rebellion by the Mehdi Army, threatened to walk out of the Conference unless negotiations with al-Sadr were restarted and military action against the Mehdi Army was suspended. The organizers acceded, due to the negative effects that a walk out would have had on the Conference's legitimacy and the sentiment among many delegates that the Conference would be a travesty if it was held in the context of civil war.

Whether or not the Conference organizers were sincere in their initial insistence that the Conference proceed with its scheduled work, the diversion of the proceedings to the Najaf crisis stopped any attempt at consensus building on the composition of the Council in its tracks. The second day of the Conference was taken up with debates over how it could play a role in defusing the confrontation. Anti-regime tendencies wanted the Conference to insist that Allawi withdraw military forces and enter negotiations with al-Sadr, pro-regime delegates backed Allawi's hard line, and moderates urged that the Conference intervene directly and send a mission to Najaf to persuade al-Sadr to stand down.

The moderates won, providing a brief possibility that the Conference could pave the way for an autonomous legislative body that would act independently of the transitional executive. The final plan, however, was to present al-Sadr with a non-negotiable proposal for his forces to leave the Mosque and disarm, in return for safe conduct and the opportunity to form a peaceful political movement. Although the proposal fell short of Allawi's maximum aims, he accepted it.

The Conference's third day, which was supposed to be devoted to electing the Council, was instead taken up with the fate of a delegation of eight Conference members who were to present the proposal to al-Sadr in Najaf. Al-Sadr refused to meet with them, citing security concerns stemming from fighting in the neighborhood of the Mosque, but his representatives were encouraging to the Council delegation.

By the time the delegation's mission was concluded, it was too late to elect delegates and the Conference was extended for another day.

On the Conference's fourth day, al-Sadr accepted the proposal to stand down, but it was not clear that the crisis had been resolved, since he quickly announced conditions, including the withdrawal of American forces from Najaf and a guarantee that the Mosque would be placed under the control of Shi'a clerics. The next day al-Sadr adopted a confrontational stance and the situation returned to what it had been before the Conference's attempt at a peaceful solution, with the government threatening to take the Mosque by force and al-Sadr vowing that he would resist and, if necessary, take the path of martyrdom. The Conference had failed to play a constructive role in resolving the Najaf crisis.

Choosing the Council

With the attention of the Conference focused on Najaf for its first three days, there was no time for the intensive process of consensus building that had been envisioned by its American architects in the Coalition Provisional Authority and that was necessary to achieve its legitimacy and the legitimacy of the Council that it would elect. The way was open for the forces in the transitional government to craft the Council in its image.

Even before the Conference convened, its legitimacy had been severely questioned. Its opening had been delayed for two weeks by the United Nations, which objected to its lack of inclusiveness and sought to broaden representation of groups outside the transitional government. In the days before the Conference met, there were still persistent claims by small parties, civil society groups and tribes that the process for selecting delegates was not transparent and was controlled by the parties in the regime coalition. Nonetheless, of the 1300 delegates finally chosen, between one-third and one-half were not affiliated with the regime.

The major divide in the Conference was between pro-regime forces who desired a Council controlled by them that would cooperate with the transitional government, and non-regime tendencies that pushed for a Council that would function as an independent parliament that would serve as an overseer and a check on the transitional executive.

The conflict played out as a procedural struggle over how the Council would be elected. Originally, there were to have been broad discussions among the delegates that would result in a single list of candidates and would be voted in by a two-thirds majority. As the possibility for consensus building vanished due to the Najaf distraction, the non-regime tendencies argued for open voting by the entire Conference on prospective candidates, in order to avoid a list imposed on them by the pro-regime elements whom they suspected of having pre-selected candidates before the Conference began. A compromise was reached on the third day that a list dominated by the regime partners would be contested by a slate drawn up by the non-regime tendencies, and that the list gaining a simple majority would compose the Council. The compromise was effected only after 450 delegates threatened to walk out unless there would be competing lists.

The non-regime forces succeeded in making up a list, despite time constraints, lack of organizational experience and diverse interests, but then abruptly withdrew it. One of the leading non-regime figures at the Conference -- Aziz al-Yasseri, head of the Iraqi Democratic Movement -- explained that the non-regime list was withdrawn in order to deprive the pro-regime list of legitimacy. The non-regime bloc had concluded that the Conference had been too stacked by parties allied to the regime to allow for broader representation. As a result, 300 delegates are reported to have withdrawn from the Conference, at which point the Conference organizers quickly declared the pro-regime list the winner without taking a vote, prompting widespread expressions of dissent and dissatisfaction, and a walk out by the Shi'a delegation from Basra. The pro-regime elements had engineered a formal victory, at the cost of their legitimacy.

Conclusion

The course of the Iraqi National Conference symbolizes the present state of Iraqi politics, which is becoming increasingly a polar struggle between the transitional government and the rejectionists. The Conference had provided the possibility for broader representation and with it increased legitimacy for the transitional institutions, but the regime and its allies chose to keep those institutions in their own hands with the apparent backing of the United States. As a result, Allawi will work with a compliant Council and can be expected to continue with his policy of confrontation with the rejectionists who will persist in their intransigence. Allawi will attempt to consolidate his power in state institutions, driving the United States to depend on him as its only recourse and encouraging a drift toward a dictatorship threatened increasingly by separatism.

Rather than enhancing the legitimacy of transitional institutions, the Conference diminished it. Sectors of Iraqi society that support neither the regime nor the Sunni and Shi'a Arab insurgencies have been cut out of their only chance to pursue their interests peacefully and institutionally. Their confidence in the planned open elections has been compromised. Excluded from the transitional process, they will be increasingly alienated from the regime, less willing to support it against its militant foes and more likely to place themselves with separatist tendencies.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
PINR

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