Interim Government Set to Take Over in Iraq
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RAY SUAREZ: We’re joined by Juan Cole, professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan; he recently authored Sacred Space and Holy War, a book about Shia Islam; and Najmaldin Karim, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute, born and raised in Kurdish, Iraq, he’s now a U.S. citizen and has been back to Iraq several times since the war.
Professor Cole, in his remarks and then his impromptu news conference just following, President Bush was careful to make and then re-make two big points: One, that he had very little to do with the choosing of the top members of the interim Iraqi government; and that Lakhdar Brahimi took a lead role over the Iraqi governing council over Bremer and indeed over the U.S. government. Why was it so important for the president to make those points?
JUAN COLE: Well, it’s because the members of the interim governing council, including Kurdish member Mahmoud Osman, have challenged that narrative, have said that the Americans tried very hard to impose a set of their nominees, Mr. Sistani as prime minister and Mr. Pachachi as president, and that they were resisted by the interim governing council and that Mr. Brahimi played a very little role, that he didn’t come to one of the key meetings.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Karim, the president said today this was an Iraqi process. Was it?
NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, it was and it wasn’t. It was in the sense that the Iraqis, the Iraqi governing council basically approved the major appointments, but in reality the process that brought to it that stage was not entirely an Iraqi process.
And I would say it wasn’t entirely a Brahimi process either. Brahimi had his own people he wanted to put into these positions, he met resistance, particularly on the, on his first choice for prime minister was viewed with opposition from basically all groups within the governing council, and I think that he was also not the favorite of Mr. Bremer and perhaps Mr. Blackwell, whereas it was clear that for the presidency, Mr. Bremer’s choice was Mr. Pachachi to be the president, but the governing council was opposed to that and they eventually prevailed.
RAY SUAREZ: Now that this new cabinet is seated, in fact the Iraqi governing council has voted itself out of business what do you make of this government, how does it look to you?
NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, this government, it really remains to be seen what it will be able to accomplish. It certainly has broad base as far as ethnic and religious diversification. But on the other hand, you have a lot of unhappy sectors within the Iraqi society about the eventual shapeup of this.
RAY SUAREZ: For instance?
NAJMALDIN KARIM: For instance, I believe the major Shiite groups feel that they probably are left out of important positions, even though the prime minister, the Shia, they probably look at him as a former Baath Party member who wants to bring former Baath members into the government. He was critical of disbanding the Iraqi army the way it was done by Mr. Bremer, which I believe was the right thing to do personally. And even the Kurds, actually, are not quite happy about the form that this government took.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, do you agree with that analysis? Do the Shias have much to be sore about as this process finishes up?
JUAN COLE: Well, the Shia major parties are religious parties and they didn’t come out at the top of the government, the Dawa Party, which is an extremely important Shia party did get one of the two have the vice presidencies in the form of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, but the Supreme Council for Islamic Evolution in Iraq, which has been a major U.S. ally and is an important Shiite party, I think just got one ministry, the finance ministry. And the Sadr movement, which is not confined only to the followers of Muqtada Sadr, I think has been completely excluded from this government.
So there’s millions and millions of Shiites who really aren’t represented by their ideology currents here. The problem is that one would hope that Iraqis would begin to be represented on other bases than these ethnic ones. After all, there are Kurdish farmers and Shiite farmers and Sunni farmers, and they would all hopefully be interested in who got the agriculture ministry. I think it’s unhealthy for people to focus only on the ethnic distribution of these posts, and I think it’s been a mistake of the United States to play up that way of making the government representative.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, one of the strong narratives that came out of this process was that the Iraqi governing council really pushed back hard against other power centers, whether it was the White House, the U. N., the coalition provisional authority. Was that a healthy sign in your view?
JUAN COLE: There is a healthy aspect to it. Certainly some of the members of the new government come out of a revived Iraqi civil society, the minister of justice, for instance, had been elected freely by the lawyers guild to be their head last summer after the fall of the regime. Now he’s emerged as the minister of justice, that’s very healthy.
But there is a problem here which is that the most active and the most insistent, the best at maneuvering among these politicians, are the expatriates with the exception of the two Kurdish parties which have strong local grassroots.
And it is really the expatriates and their parties that have come out on top in this government, and I think a lot of Iraqis are going to feel that they are not represented by a prime minister who was in exile for a long time and who organized ex-Baathist officers to overthrow Saddam, that that’s not really any longer relevant to their primary goals in life. And I think that the expatriate nature of this — of the high posts is a problem.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Karim, does the expatriate nature get at least muted a little bit by that open difference with the coalition provisional authority, with the United States, with Lakhdar Brahimi?
NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe that the governing council, by its performance in the last month, has gained itself some credibility among the people as far as they are not puppets, they are not dictated to. And I know some of these people personally, and they do have their own opinions, their views and they all express it. They’re not always successful to get what they are looking for.
But still I share Professor Cole’s views that people would look suspiciously into some of these key positions that have been taken by individuals who have spent most of their adult lives outside Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Briefly, in the time we have left, doctor, what’s the first assignment for this new interim government? And do they actually have the authority and the wherewithal to carry it out?
NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, it remains to be seen what authorities they have and what they are given. The president says they will have full sovereignty, but obviously we have real issues on the ground. It’s not just a matter of sovereignty. Security, for example, security is paramount to anything that could happen in that country. And that is a big challenge. The prime minister, the appointed prime minister was in charge of security, when the governing council was established until now, and you know, we see that security was really a big challenge even at the time he was. Hopefully now he’ll have more power and be able to do more than what he had done before, which certainly was not enough.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, same question, job one, and do they have the means to do it?
JUAN COLE: Well, I believe the job one of this government is to move the country towards those elections no later than next January. There has to be tangible movement, there have to be voter rolls, there have to be laws on the books. There has to be campaigning. I don’t believe this government can attain legitimacy, it is an appointed government. It does not well from the will of the Iraqi people. But to the extent it is perceived as paving the way for a genuinely representative government that is elected, it might partake in some of that legitimacy.
I think that this is the way to draw off some of the dissatisfactions that lead people to join these small terrorist groups. I think the other thing that needs to be done is that the process of restoring the Iraqi military has to be jump started. Whatever the U.S. has been doing has been completely ineffective in that regard; ever since they dissolved the Iraqi army there’s been no security in the country. And this government has to make tangible strides in that direction or else there is real danger ahead.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, Dr. Karim, gentlemen, thank you both.