United Nations Will Decide On Election

United Nations will Decide on Election Mechanism for Iraq

AP reported of Bush’s meeting with Kofi Annan Tuesday that, Kofi said, “The Iraqi Governing Council … indicated that they would accept the conclusions of the U.N. team, so we do have a chance to help break the impasse which exists at the moment and move forward.”

But Mr. Annan said the president pledged to support whatever agreement the United Nations can achieve for elections of a transitional Iraqi government, which the United States wants to take full control on July 1. “We are going to help them work out this problem, and hopefully, they will come to some consensus and agreement as to how to move forward,” Mr. Annan said.

Say what? W. has pledged essentially to turn decision-making about the shape of Iraqi elections over to . . . the United Nations?

Dick Cheney and Richard Perle must be sitting at some bar on K street, haggard, and throwing back shots. “A year ago, the UN was history,” they commiserate. “How did this happen?” (A tip of the hat to blogger Swopa, who was prescient about all this.

When Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani initially slammed the Nov. 15 agreement between the US and its appointed Interim Governing Council, which called for elections based on Coalition-appointed provincial councils, he left himself an out. He said that he insisted that direct elections be held unless the United Nations sent a commission to Iraq to investigate the situation thoroughly and then reported back that general elections simply could not be held. Sistani and his aides later made it clear that they expected the UN commission to recommend something much closer to democratic elections than envisaged by the Americans, in any case.

Paul Bremer’s first instinct was to defy Sistani this time. He had the IGC take a vote, which rejected the Sistani plan. When some IGC members brought up the possibility of the UN commission, they reported that the Americans were “deeply offended” that the Iraqis now wanted to bring in the UN. One of the entire points of the Iraq war from the point of view of Cheney and Co. was to demonstrate the uselessness of the UN and authorize American multilateralism. Sistani and the IGC now seemed to be placing that achievement of the US Right in doubt.

Sistani has on several occasions since April employed his religious office to pursue secular aims. His repeated calls for direct elections, of members of any constituent assembly that drafts a new constitution, and then of the transitional parliament to be formed this spring, are not grounded in Islamic religious texts (though the Qur’an does recommend shura or consultation as a means of carrying out the community’s affairs, and modernist Muslims have glossed shura as democracy). When he says, “legitimate government derives from the will of the people (iradat ash-sha`b),” he is just giving his imprimatur to an Enlightenment ideal.

His call for a United Nations commission was also a contribution to secular politics. He knew very well that once a UN team came into Iraq to make recommendations on how the elections should be held, it would in effect take the direct decision-making out of Mr. Bremer’s hands. He could be “deeply offended” all he liked. Sistani has never approved of the US occupation, and has long felt that the United Nations would be a more legitimate midwife of the new Iraqi state, so that it could escape the taint of being a creature of American neocolonialism.

Then Bremer started losing the IGC. Its members liked the idea of re-involving the United Nations, realizing that an IGC-UN-American triangle would give them more power and more room for maneuver than a straight American-IGC relationship, which was inevitably somewhat patronizing.

Then Sistani demonstrated, on January 15 and 19, that he could put tens of thousands of Shiites into the streets of Basra and Baghdad at will. The Americans were already bogged down in a guerrilla war in the Sunni Arab areas. They did not really control the restive Kurdish north. If the Shiites turned against them, they were doomed, and they knew it.

The British military felt even more strongly about the dangers of a Shiite revolt, and took the unusual step, according to the Financial Times, of announcing from Basra that they saw no bar at all to implementation of Sistani’s plan. One of my correspondents wrote recently, “My British army friend currently in Iraq says “the sky will fall in” in the south if they don’t get elections soon,which is why the brit army backed them recently.” Since Jeremy Greenstock and other Blair spokesmen were much more ambivalent about direct elections, there was a bit of insubordination going on here. I was told that the British army felt badly used by the civilians in Bosnia and had determined thenceforth to speak out on pressing issues affecting them.

So, Bremer must have felt isolated on all sides. The IGC was going to meet with Kofi Annan over his objections. Sistani had shown a willingness to call out the urban masses. Even the British army in Basra had gone over to the ayatollah.

The June 30 deadline for handing over sovereignty to some sort of indigenous Iraqi government loomed. Karl Rove, Bush’s campaign adviser, wanted a tangible sign of progress in Iraq, and this transition was to be it. If it were delayed, the Democrats could portray Bush as trapped in a quagmire in Iraq. Worse, as long as the Americans were more or less ruling Iraq directly, the US press remained interested in the story in a way they would not be if there were a legitimate Iraqi government. This June 30 transition is designed to get Iraq off the front pages of the major newspapers and out of the cable television news cycle.

Defying Sistani altogether carried the risk that there would be big urban demonstrations into the fall. US soldiers might have to fire into unarmed civilian crowds. The steady drumbeat of bombings in the Sunni areas would probably continue, as well, despite Saddam’s capture.

And so, Bush and Co. have no choice but to obey the Grand Ayatollah’s fatwa, for all the world like flagellating devotees, and let the UN decide about elections. For arrogant unilateralists, it is a dramatic reversal. They could not have even foreseen who the sides would be, that would impose on them this multilateralism.

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