Toby Dodge: The politics of the playground is obstructing peace in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Earlier this week I was called to testify before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. Behind the political spin and speeches there is a sense across the American capital that Iraq today is plagued by an epidemic of violence and disorder that runs the distinct risk of creating a failed state at the heart of the Middle East. But, that said, there is little agreement about the way out of this mess. The whole process of building a stable government in the country has been undermined by the fact that many Iraqis, aware of the increasing unpopularity of the US presence in their country, and believing it to be temporary, are sitting on their hands. They have refused to get involved in national institutions until the situation becomes clearer and the risks of political activity fewer.

Overcoming this problem is the chief concern of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Iraq, who began his new mission on 5 April. Early indications suggest that Brahimi may well be trying to reproduce an Afghan model. This would involve the creation of a caretaker government made up of a prime minister, president and two vice-presidents. Before elections, scheduled for early 2005, this ruling triumvirate would gain legitimacy from a national conference, to be convened a short time after 30 June.

It is unclear how this plan would overcome the problems that have undermined the haphazard approaches to state building tried by the United States. It seems very likely that Mr Brahimi will be forced to choose the president and prime minister from the core of the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council. If he does succumb to this temptation, then all the problems that dogged the Council - its lack of legitimacy, its inability to forge meaningful links with the population and criticisms of it being appointed and not elected - will resurface.

Second, because Mr Brahimi is working under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority, he risks looking like a mere appendage to the occupation. With the current poor security situation the proposed national conference may find it very difficult to attract a large and representative sample of the Iraqi population, which would make it difficult for it to fulfil its dual roles as a forum for national dialogue and a source of legitimacy for the new caretaker government. The failure of a national conference to bring together a broad cross-section of the population would leave the caretaker government proposed by Mr Brahimi dangerously exposed and open to criticisms and suspicions familiar to the Iraqi Governing Council.

The only answer is to internationalise totally the creation of governing institutions and democratic structures. This would not mean a partial or token role for the UN. Instead it would involve bringing the whole occupation and state building under UN management. The UN is certainly not a magic wand or a cure all. In Cambodia it failed to deliver democracy but it did result in the creation of a comparatively stable polity.

But the UN management of Iraq would reduce the suspicion felt towards the CPA by large sections of the population. The organisation overseeing the move towards the creation of a new state would then not be America but the international community. Accusations of double standards or nefarious intent would be much harder to sustain. Arguments about the occupiers' willingness to relinquish power would also be reduced. It would be the Security Council in New York, not the US government in Washington, that would have ultimate responsibility for Iraq's transition. This would result in more Iraqis viewing the whole exercise as far more legitimate. The UN could then utilise expertise and troops from across the international community. Those involved in reconstruction would then not run the danger of being labelled collaborators.

With more than 100 US troops killed in April alone, a new realism is needed. The main obstacle to full UN involvement is the position of both France and the US. In a shameful display of the politics of the playground, the French are leaving the Americans to stew in their own juice. If Washington were to recognise the gravity of the situation, it could put some heat on the French to stop standing idly by. But first the Americans must get real about how close Iraq is to anarchy.

Toby Dodge is the author of 'Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied'