Patrick Cockburn: The Americans must relinquish power in Iraq

The key point is to have elections as soon as possible. The US must let the Iraqis decide their own fate
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Soon after the capture of Baghdad by US troops Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, came up with a novel idea on how to run the ravaged Iraqi capital. He suggested in a conference call with newly arrived US officials in Iraq that Rudy Giuliani, the stoic mayor of New York at the time of destruction of the World Trade Centre, be made the new mayor of Baghdad.

A friend who participated in the conference was aghast at the idea pointing out that few Iraqis had ever heard of Giuliani and many of them had probably cheered when the Twin Towers went down. Even so it took 48 hours for the proposal to die. The friend told me wryly that "ever afterwards the neo-cons among the US officials in Baghdad regarded me with suspicion as a hostile element".

The arrogant triumphalism of Rumsfeld and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon which led to his "Guliani for mayor" proposal has taken a battering over the last five months. But the US is today no nearer finding a satisfactory way of running Iraq than it was at the time the US army overthrew Saddam Hussein.

The main change in the physical appearance of Baghdad over this period is the building of extraordinarily elaborate fortifications to protect the Coalition Provisional Authority. Great slabs of concrete fifteen feet high now run along the bank of the Tigris river, protecting Saddam's old Republican Palace where Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, has his headquarters. Notices announce that no swimming is allowed in the Tigris, presumably to deter underwater saboteurs.

Inside this forbidden city the occupation authorities live in extraordinary isolation, both physical and mental. It should be difficult to outdo Saddam's personal security measures but Iraqis say that the length of Mr Bremer's motorcade exceeds that of the former Iraqi ruler. Many of the US officials live inside the al-Rashid hotel, once the haunt of journalists, now protected by rolls of razor wire and sand-bagged emplacements.

The only noticeable change inside the hotel is that a mosaic of President George Bush, the victor in the first Gulf War, placed on the floor just inside the entrance has gone. It was placed there by the Iraqi government in the early 1990s so anybody entering the hotel would have to step on President Bush's face. A CPA official, who wanted to preserve it as a historic memento, explained that it had been ripped up after a US officer, patriotically determined not put his foot on Bush's features, had tried to step over the mosaic in one stride. The distance was too great. He sprained his groin in doing so and had to be hospitalised for twenty-four hours.

Part of the American problem is Mr Bremer himself. He wears a neat business suit and protruding from the trouser legs an incongruous pair of military boots. Some of his staff whisper that he suffers from a "MacArthur'"complex, seeing himself in the same role as Gen Douglas MacArthur when he was the all-powerful US viceroy in Japan after 1945. Members of the US-appointed Governing Council say they find him abrupt, patronizing and prone to issue decrees unilaterally without even a nod in their direction.

But the real problem for Mr Bremer is that everything he does is with only one eye on Iraq and the other on the US presidential election next year. The US rush to war earlier this year is explained by the desire in Washington to get a famous victory under its belt well before the election. It has not worked.

The obvious way out for the US is to internationalise responsibility for Iraq and at the same time turn over more power to Iraqis. But so far this has remained at the level of slogans. The bomb which destroyed the UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel means that the number of UN staff is being reduced by the day. Salvadoran troops are here with a member of the US Special Forces covertly giving orders in the background, but the South Koreans have touchingly requested that their soldiers be posted to "a safe place" in Iraq while the arrival of the Turks would infuriate the Kurds.

The Governing Council is an unelected body selected by the US. It cannot have real credibility until the parties which belong to it face an election. Mr Bremer wants a constitution drawn up which he says can be done in six months. It would certainly take longer and this is probably an attempt to delay the political process until President Bush has won re-election. In any case a constitution drawn up by an unelected body would not carry much weight with Iraqis.

But if there are elections then they would almost certainly be won by the Shi'ite parties because the Shia, long marginalised by Saddam Hussein, are the majority of the population. They think their day has come. If they suspect that the US is going to deny them power then they can make it impossible for the US to rule Iraq within days.

Despite these difficulties facing the Americans, the key point in Iraq is to have elections just as quickly as possible. Until this happens the US is in the position of promising democracy but in practice running an old-fashioned colonial regime.The only real way out for the Americans is to let the Iraqis decide the fate of their country, which is what the US claimed it was doing in the first place.