Washington's manoeuvring threatens Iraq's sovereignty before it has even begun

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No sooner have the first flickers of hope appeared on Iraq's battle-scarred horizon, than they are brutally extinguished, leaving the outlook even gloomier than it was before.

The tragic pattern has become almost familiar, so often have we seen it over the past year. No sooner have the first flickers of hope appeared on Iraq's battle-scarred horizon, than they are brutally extinguished, leaving the outlook even gloomier than it was before.

One week ago, the United Nations appeared to have made impressive headway in finding well-qualified Iraqis prepared to serve in an interim government until elections next year. Now, not only is the whole process deadlocked over the choice of president, but it turns out that the guiding role the UN was supposed to have been playing has never been anything of the kind. The end-of-month deadline for naming the new government has not been met.

If the deadline had been missed because productive discussion had simply overrun its allotted time, that would be one thing. But this is not the case. Nor is it the case, as it originally seemed, that the delay reflected divisions among members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council or between them and the UN. The reality is more complex, more disappointing and more malign.

What emerged during yesterday's 24 hour cooling-off period was that, far from standing aside - "taking the training wheels off", as President Bush so patronisingly said recently - Washington has been intimately engaged in the whole process of forming Iraq's interim government, a hidden hand shaping the new structures and pushing the nominations. But for the emergence of last-minute differences and the awkwardness, perhaps, of certain influential Iraqis, the United States might have succeeded in passing off Iraq's caretaker government as independent and endorsed by the UN, when it was actually as much a creature of Washington as its predecessor, the IGC.

Here was another lie in the making, another misrepresentation to add to the misrepresentations that have studded the US and British intervention in Iraq, from the propaganda about weapons of mass destruction on.

There were clues. The UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been increasingly open about the differences between himself and the Americans. He made clear that he would not remain in Iraq after the formation of a new government, contrary to speculation that he would take on a position akin to UN governor. He then clarified that not only would there be no role for him, but the United Nations would not play the "vital role" that the British and Europeans had favoured for it during the period between occupation and elections. Finally, there was the confusion surrounding the naming of Iyad Allawi as Prime Minister, and hints that it was neither the IGC nor the UN that had put him forward, but Washington's proxies.

So it was apparent even before yesterday that the UN's function in a "sovereign" Iraq would be far less than envisaged and probably far less than would make it acceptable to the majority on the Security Council. Admittedly, it was never as clear as it should have been whether the UN would actually nominate the members of an interim government or merely facilitate the government's formation. The hope may have been that the exact mechanism would be of little consequence so long as the government itself ultimately had the blessing of the UN. Without that, it would have no chance of acceptance among Iraqis.

A "vital role" for the UN was one precondition of broad international support for any interim Iraqi government. Another was the need for a definitive end to the occupation. While it was accepted that the US, British and other troops would most likely remain, on terms agreed with the UN and the new government, it was crucial that Iraqis had to be seen to be in charge of the whole administrative apparatus after 30 June. This was the minimum that would have given the transfer of sovereignty credibility. With four weeks to go, none of these conditions has been met and the process of forming the government has been exposed as a sham. The best solution now would be a return to the drawing board, especially if the only other alternative is the battlefield.

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