Empire Falls

Right after the local powerbrokers of the Iraqi Governing Council turned around and bit the very American hand that fed them, there was yet another sign of the United States' diminishing authority on all matters related to Iraq: the revised UN resolution submitted to the Security Council on Tuesday.

Both the IGC's ability to out-maneuver the Americans over the appointment of the interim government and the success of Security Council naysayers such as Russia and China in securing significant concessions reflect the Bush administration's increasingly precarious position: there is blood in the water and everyone can smell it.

The combination of the impending U.S. elections, Abu Ghraib torture pictures, the climb-downs with ex-Ba'athists in Najaf, the Shi'a militia in Fallujah and the mounting U.S. casualties have taken a serious toll on the White House's negotiating power. And the proof is in the details of the draft resolution.

To begin with, the resolution explicitly states that the UN mandate for the Multinational Force -- the term the Coalition intends to use to camouflage itself -- has a sunset clause, expiring after twelve months, unless explicitly renewed. More importantly, the mandate can also be terminated earlier at the request of the Iraqi transitional government that will be elected by Jan. 31, 2005. This overt declaration that U.S. forces will in fact go if asked is a decisive setback for the administration hawks, who have been issuing statements for months suggesting the contrary.

An equally big blow to the neoconservative hopes of running Iraq like the proverbial 51st state is the Bush administration's decision to cede control over Iraqi forces. According to the new text, the Iraqi military, police, and border forces will operate under the command of the Iraqi government and -- shock and horror -- the Iraqi people will "decide their own political future and control their own natural resources." In other words, Iraqis will finally own their oil, though the revenues will still be paid into an internationally controlled fund until a new elected government takes over.

As for the immediate 'transfer of sovereignty,' the resolution also notes "that the presence of the multinational force in Iraq is at the request of the incoming interim government of Iraq," which will take office on June 30. The request, however, has not been made yet and the draft leaves room for the date of that request to be included in the resolution. While the new interim government has already said that it will ask the coalition forces to stay, the details of their status and command and control have not yet been worked out.

The new government headed by Ayad Allawi is already showing every sign of wanting more in the way of independence than anyone anticipated -- it is all but essential for it to gain credibility among the Iraqi people.

Of course, the appointment of Allawi himself came as a rude surprise to Washington -- an unwelcome sign of the changing balance of power between the occupiers and the occupied.

Diplomatic Coup

It was not the U.S. that wrong-footed the U.N. last week by sidelining Brahimi, but the powerbrokers in the IGC, who staged a diplomatic coup in Baghdad.

The first sign that things were not going as planned was when Washington announced that Hussein Shahristani was to be the new Prime Minister of Iraq. (The decision to preempt Brahimi was in itself misguided since the whole purpose of involving the U.N. and Lakhdar Brahimi was to baptize a new administration, guaranteed free of occupational sin.) But Shahristani decided not to accept the nomination because of the other factions on the IGC who forced him to back down, and thus caught both Bremer and Brahimi on the hop.

That the IGC announced its own choice for Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, was in itself highly presumptuous. One of the stated reasons for inviting Brahimi in Iraq had been, until last week, to wave goodbye to the Iraqi Governing Council, which was, after all, a creation of the American occupiers. Brahimi's official brief was, in fact, to marginalize the IGC and appoint a technocratic caretaker administration that would mark the break with the occupation, with the Security Council playing the role of Godfather.

It's a measure of the IGC's power that after a subdued initial response, Brahimi took his list of suggested appointees to the new government to Allawi for his blessing. And the list was for the most part made up of IGC nominations, including Ghazi Yawar as interim President who beat out Adnan Pachachi, the choice of CPA chief Paul Bremer.

To wash away the stigma of occupation that its nomination by the IGC gives it, the new Allawi government has to be even pushier in its demands on the U.S to show Iraqis that they are not American stool pigeons. Allawi is also likely to receive the backing from the other Security Council members who want assurances of public support for the new administration. (Note that the Security Council has asked for the interim government's input on the draft resolution.) And so while the draft resolution represents serious concessions for the Bush White House, there may well be more to come.

A Truly Sovereign Iraq?

Despite such encouraging signs of reason from the Bush administration, the future of a sovereign Iraq looks murky. A convincing display of independence on part of Allawi may not stop various groups within and outside the government from jockeying for power, while using the presence of the Americans to lend a religious or patriotic color to their self-serving maneuvers. It is difficult to see Ahmad Chalabi being happy at exclusion from power, for example.

In some ways, the seeming independence of the new authority could ring some alarm bells. The original plan was to create an interim government of non-politicians. The IGC coup has created instead a government made up of ambitious power-seekers who have no intention of being temporary caretakers. It will not be surprising if some of them -- ones with a somewhat expedient attachment to democracy -- declare it impossible to hold elections in January. Their cavalier treatment of Brahimi suggests that they will not show overmuch respect to the United Nations.

As for the Bush administration, the UN mandate represents the only remaining way out of a very deep hole. During one of the perennial bouts of Republican U.N.-baiting back in 2000, former U.S. ambassador Dennis Jett offered the following profound insight:

"If no country or group of countries is willing to do a job, it will be handed to the United Nations. That way, if the effort fails, the United Nations, and not an individual country, can assume the responsibility. Since every country wants that option, each respects the other's right to saddle the organization with impossible missions. A country can also use the United Nations to hide its own foreign policy failures."
During the coming months of the election campaign, Bush and Karl Rove will be doing exactly that.

Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent, and is the author of "The UN for Beginners." His latest book, "Deserter: George Bush, Soldier of Fortune" is due out in August from Nation Books.

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