The Iraq Dilemma: Do it Right or Quick?

Times Staff Writers

President Bush has proclaimed two highly ambitious goals for the U.S. occupation of Iraq in the next six months: to crush the anti-American insurgency and then, on June 30, to transfer sovereignty to a still-unformed Iraqi government.

To do so, Bush and his right-hand man in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, must make a series of crucial decisions that may determine whether the U.S. invasion is remembered as a triumph or as the overreach of an arrogant superpower.

Underlying almost every choice is a basic dilemma: Is it more important to do Iraq “right” -- to make sure stability and democracy take firm root -- or to do it “quick,” before the majority of both Iraqis and American voters decide that the occupation has become too great a burden?

Both options require maintaining a large contingent of troops in Iraq to establish the groundwork for the fledgling government and then protect it. Bush has even left himself the option of temporarily increasing the number of troops if necessary.


“The president wants to do it right,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said in an interview last week. “And that’s why

However, others inside and outside the administration worry that in an election year, pressure will mount to draw down troops more quickly.

Some in the administration “want to get Iraq right, and that group [needs] a longer time frame,” said Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor to former President George H.W. Bush. “At the other extreme, there are some whose goal is to get Iraq off the front pages by August.”

By any standard, the election-year timetable for Iraqi sovereignty is brisk.

By Feb. 28, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is supposed to produce a temporary constitution, the “Fundamental Law.” A month after that, the council and the U.S. military are scheduled to conclude an agreement allowing American troops to remain in the country long-term.

Meanwhile, caucuses in Iraq’s 18 provinces are slated to choose members of a new transitional legislative assembly by May 31. The assembly is supposed to meet in June, appoint a new prime minister and, on June 30, officially assume sovereignty as the interim government of Iraq.

Can all that be done in six months? Even some top officials acknowledge that there will be loose ends, and that the new Iraqi government’s sovereignty still will rest on a foundation of U.S. military force and money.

“We realize that all the t’s are not going to be crossed and the i’s dotted by 30 June,” said a senior U.S. official. That is why, he said, the administration is determined to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on allowing U.S. troops to remain.

Some American experts say that if a credible government cannot be formed by the deadline, the U.S. should extend the time frame, rather than install a government without Iraqi or international support.

“It’s not written in stone that anything must happen on June 30,” said Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University who has been an advisor to both Bremer and leading Iraqi figures. “If there’s no credible legitimate transitional government ready to assume power on June 30, we should not hand power to a noncredible body as the second best.”

If the plan doesn’t work, skeptics say, the U.S. occupation authority on June 30 may just change its name to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and the unelected Iraqi Governing Council might seek to cling to power.

A failure to make the deadline or the continuation of an unelected government would be a setback for the Bush administration, and not merely in terms of its election-year image. It probably would deter the United Nations from becoming more active in Iraq and would fuel suspicion in the Arab world that the U.S. is reluctant to cede power.

Meanwhile, the most pressing problem for both the United States and Iraqis who support the interim government is security. The cumbersome processes of even an interim, partial democracy will be difficult to carry out if anti-American forces increase their attacks on both U.S. forces and on cooperating Iraqis.

Some of the main challenges:

* Ending the insurgency:

Despite the capture of Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13, it is not yet clear whether the anti-American insurgency will soon run out of steam. As the year ends, U.S. officials have been hopeful. During the last two weeks, U.S. forces in Iraq’s “Central Sector” -- the Pentagon’s new nonsectarian name for what used to be called the “Sunni Triangle” -- have captured dozens of key figures in the insurgency’s clandestine leadership. And the Pentagon says that attacks on U.S. targets have diminished to about 15 a day, down from about 50 a day in mid-September.

However, in Karbala on Saturday, the slowdown ended with a fierce attack on U.S. allies, as insurgents, including suicide bombers in four vehicles, killed 13 people and wounded more than 170 others.

Some critics say that the Pentagon is trying to fight the war with too few troops, stretching the Army and Marine Corps and giving insurgents false hope of an early withdrawal. “I’d put more troops in now, in a hurry,” Scowcroft said. “The more troops you have, the quicker you can change the climate.”

* Making a deal with the Shiites:

A major stumbling block has been Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation’s most influential Shiite leader. Sistani has rejected the plan to hold caucuses to select the new government. He has insisted that only a government chosen by direct elections will be legitimate. The U.S. and its allies are adamant that there isn’t enough time before the June 30 handover to conduct a census, register voters and organize political parties, without which a legitimate election cannot be held.

The stalemate, if not resolved quickly, puts the United States in the awkward position of trying to force a political process that is not entirely democratic, possibly further hurting its image in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Behind the scenes, Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, is trying to arrange a compromise acceptable not just to Sistani but also to the Governing Council and other Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders.

“It can’t be just cutting a deal with Sistani,” a senior State Department official said last week. “He may represent a very significant political force among the major groups, but it won’t hold Iraq together if we just cut a deal with him.”

Still, the mechanics of the 18 caucuses slated to select the new government haven’t been worked out either.

“It has to be seen as legitimate not only in the eyes of the world, but especially in the eyes of the Iraqis,” the official said. “It has to be a government they’re willing to invest in.”

* Including the Sunnis:

To create a legitimate government, Bremer also will have to involve the alienated, angry and fearful Sunni population.

The minority Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein’s rule, are now most identified in American minds as the inhabitants of the hostile Sunni Triangle. And because so many middle-class Sunnis joined the Baath Party under Hussein -- a necessity for career enhancement -- a large portion of the Sunni elite is now ineligible to participate in politics under a coalition decree barring ex-Baathists from public office.

The ban was imposed with the support of the Iraqi exiles on the Governing Council. But it is opposed by many Iraqis who say Sunnis are needed to rebuild Iraq. They argue that Iraqis can and must distinguish between senior Baathists guilty of crimes in the old regime and low-level technocrats.

Experts have been warning for some months that failure to include the Sunnis in the new Iraq is a recipe for civil war as soon as U.S. forces leave. Some say even those sympathetic to the anti-U.S. insurgency must be included, lest they be left behind as spoilers.

Bush administration officials see the leadership vacuum among the Sunnis as a danger -- but so far, there appear to be no specific plans to remedy it.

“Our job ... is to reach out to Sunni tribal leaders, make it very clear in word and in deed that they do have a future in the political system of the new Iraq,” Armitage said this month. “This is a very time-consuming and arduous process, but it is a most worthy one.”

* Drafting a constitution:

The U.S. timetable calls on the Governing Council to write a temporary constitution -- Fundamental Law -- by the end of February, but that job could be just as complex and controversial as writing a permanent charter. The Fundamental Law is supposed to set out a schedule for electing delegates to the constitutional convention, a federal system to divide power between Baghdad and the country’s 18 provinces, and a bill of rights.

The U.S. wants to include the rights of free speech, assembly and religion, guarantees of due process and a statement of equal rights for all Iraqis regardless of gender, religion or ethnic origin.

But many of those provisions may generate controversy among Iraqis. U.S. officials acknowledge, for example, that a guarantee of equal rights for women could meet with resistance from Islamic conservatives, although the Governing Council already has agreed to the principle in an earlier document.

In addition, Ayatollah Sistani is demanding a clause that says that nothing in the constitution can contradict the laws of Islam; and some think he may get it.

* Playing chicken with the Governing Council:

Much as the U.S. wants to ensure that the appointed Iraqi Governing Council is dissolved on June 30, there are fears that some council members are maneuvering to hold onto power -- and to win lucrative reconstruction contracts in the meantime.

"[Iraqis] are worried that power is being concentrated in the hands of a very few who are getting contracts and lining their pockets,” said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq-watcher at the National Defense University in Washington.

To persuade the Governing Council and other Iraqi groups to work together to establish a new government, the administration has employed a variety of arguments, including warning that the U.S.-led occupation authority will not be around to protect them if they don’t.

Bremer’s strategy, one U.S. official said, is to “just keep telling people, ‘We’re going to be gone by June 30 and although you are enthused about that idea, just think about what you’re going to do on July 1.’

“We want to get out of there, yes, and we have an interest in doing so, but you’ve got to hope the Iraqis themselves want to get this done by June 30, too,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

The U.S. also is counting on using aid to move the council. Asked what leverage the U.S. has over the council, a senior official said: “I would say $18.6 billion for openers matters, and where you put those contracts and in what order matters.”

With so many issues to resolve, the planned transfer of political power on June 30 -- if it takes place -- may be considerably less polished than the administration would hope.

Pessimists fear that Bremer could leave behind 100,000 U.S. troops charged with keeping an unpopular, unrepresentative, vulnerable Iraqi government in office. The nightmare outcome, in the words of one expert: a “Lebanon in Vietnam.”

But realists say that the U.S. should settle for a modest goal of setting the new Iraqi government, however imperfect, on the long march toward democracy, with the promise of elections in the near future.

Said one person close to the process: “If we have something that vaguely looks like a government, and we don’t have Americans dying every day, that would be a wild success.”