from the April 14, 2005 edition -

Time to reassess Iraqi transition timetable

By Helena Cobban

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - Iraq now has a transitional president, Jalal Talabani, and a prime minister-designate, Ibrahim Jaafari. But it does not yet have a government and negotiations on a permanent constitution for the country have barely even started. Already, one-third of the time allotted by last year's "Transitional Administrative Law" (TAL) for drafting this constitution has passed. Now, the TAL's deadlines for agreeing on a constitution (mid-August), sending it to a nationwide referendum (October), and holding a definitive final election based on its terms (December) all look hard, if not impossible, to meet.

Meanwhile, the lack of an effective national government is making the economic and public-security crises that Iraqis have endured for many months even worse, and pressures are growing there for a speedy withdrawal of the 140,000 US troops still stationed in the country.

Can the hoped-for handover of power to a permanent elected body take place without further major crises? I believe that two parallel sets of steps - one to be undertaken by the US alone and the other by the US in conjunction with Iraq's transitional leadership - would help a lot.

In Washington, the Bush administration should issue an authoritative declaration that the US has no claims of its own on Iraq's territory or natural resources, and no desire to constrain the decisionmaking of a freely elected Iraqi parliament in any way. This would do a huge amount to reduce suspicions and tensions inside Iraq. It would also rightly focus the attentions of all Iraqis on finding a good formula for getting along with one another rather than - as some have done - relying on US power to bolster their own group's position.

In Baghdad and Washington, meanwhile, policymakers should certainly consider tweaking the terms of the US-designed TAL so that what is drafted and voted on this year would be only an interim constitution, rather than the final thing. At the same time, the two planned end-of-2005 referenda could be consolidated into a single vote - which would be both a general vote of confidence in the interim constitution and the election of a sovereign democratic government based on it. Smaller details of the final constitution could be worked out later, and submitted to a referendum at that time.

Why these suggestions?

The idea of the Bush administration making a declaration about having no lasting claims on Iraq would seem natural and easy - unless some people in the administration do indeed plan to pursue such claims, in which case we're all in big trouble. But if, as I assume, the administration does not harbor such aims, then why not say so, publicly and authoritatively?

Iraqis are a proud people. They are very proud of the 1972-75 nationalization of their oil industry from its previous British owners, and their own subsequent success in running such a high-tech industry. And most Iraqis are very hostile indeed to the idea of foreigners maintaining permanent military bases on their soil.

So long as Washington fails to reassure them publicly on these two counts, the fears that many Iraqis still hold about the "real" aims of the 2003 invasion will continue to fester, and will complicate the transition to sovereign independence quite unnecessarily.

As for tweaking the TAL: I've been studying transitions from military rule to democracy a lot recently. Such transitions are always very complex. In Iraq's case, three major imperatives are now at stake. The country's political leaders need to get the permanent constitution "right" - a complicated task that may take some time. But they also need to show their people speedy progress toward effective self-governance. Finally, they need to find a way to rapidly include representative Sunni Arab leaders in their ruling coalition, leaders who sadly did not emerge through last January's election.

The latter two imperatives mean that the next national election - the one for a more representative and fully empowered government - should not be delayed. Delay beyond the scheduled December deadline could well be fatal. But at the same time, it's hard to see how the final, permanent constitution can be gotten completely "right" before then. That's why aiming for an interim constitution at this time, and only one rather than two further electoral events this year, may be the best solution.

That was the way it worked in South Africa's complex transition to full democracy in April 1994. The major parties there first negotiated an interim constitution, then held that election in April that both endorsed the interim constitution and elected a democratic government on the basis of it. Once the government was in place, negotiations on the finer points of the permanent constitution continued and the constitution was finally adopted in 1996. In South Africa, as in Iraq, the main issues were moving from minority rule to full democracy and redefining relations among different ethnic groups.

Might this same approach work in Iraq? I think so. Most important, the momentum toward sovereign democratic rule inside Iraq must not be lost - and the country's negotiators must be allowed time to get their final constitution "right." That's a hard balance to find.

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.