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Destiny Not in Iraqis' Hands

U.S. intervention is to blame for the war-torn country's inability to select its new president.

by Carolyn Eisenberg, Co-Founder of Brooklyn for Peace
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Two months past the dramatic day when millions of brave Iraqis lined up to vote, the country still lacks a functioning government.

Progress has been halted by the inability to select a new president and two vice presidents, who would together designate a prime minister. Whenever this demoralizing logjam is finally broken, it is important to recognize that the real source of failure resides in Washington and not Baghdad.

Americans are eager to believe that we have set Iraq on the road to freedom. How else to justify the deaths of more than 1,500 of our troops, the 10,000 wounded, the numerous veterans who are returning to their families with anguished memories that will shadow their lives? It is not surprising that the recent election resonated so widely here in the United States or that many critics of the Bush administration have been silenced.

Yet, since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the ability of the Iraqis to shape their own political destiny has been compromised by U.S. interventions. While hawking democracy, the Americans have not trusted Iraqis to choose the right leaders or to enact the right laws.

Hence, their endless tinkering with the machinery of governance, their unilateral promulgation of 100 laws under the Coalition Provisional Authority, and their imposition of an "interim constitution" that now constrains political life.

In recent months, the American press has barely mentioned this "interim constitution" or Transitional Administrative Law, signed in March 2004. Written behind closed doors by American legal experts and handpicked Iraqis, it is this document that has complicated the efforts of elected Iraqi representatives to choose a Presidency Council. The relevant provision requires that the new president and the two deputies must be chosen by two-thirds of the National Assembly.

This may seem innocuous. But it is worth noting that in November, President George W. Bush was returned to office by a mere 51 percent of the voters. What would have been the impact here if the Electoral College or Congress had been required to produce a two-thirds majority in order to install a chief executive?

A fair rejoinder is that these arrangements are only temporary and that during the next months elected Iraqis will have the opportunity to produce their own permanent charter. But the "interim" document will continue to have an inhibiting effect because of its stipulation that two-thirds of the voters in three of the 18 governates can block ratification of a new constitution.

Some American officials are clearly counting on the friendly Kurds (who not coincidentally control three governates) to prevent unwelcome changes in the final draft. And if, as seems likely, there is no successor framework, the Transitional Administrative Law remains in place, with its many infringements on Iraqi self-determination.

Of these, none is more consequential than the untrammeled authority of the American military. Technically, the "multinational" force is in Iraq at the request of its government and could be asked to leave. But the command of the troops is clearly vested in U.S. hands. It is the Bush administration that sets the parameters of military operations, deciding where to attack and when, whether to strike from the air or on the ground, how much force is appropriate and what rights are to be accorded civilians.

It is also the Bush administration that sets policy on arrests and writes the rules for interrogations. While the "interim constitution" protects Iraqi citizens from arbitrary treatment by their own government ("Fundamental Rights," Chapter 2, Article 15), it provides no protection from foreign troops. If frightened U.S. soldiers shoot into a home unnecessarily or fire too quickly at a checkpoint, Iraqis cannot hold them accountable.

Some might claim these are minor items when set against the shocking brutality of the insurgents. Yet, this assumes that the insurgency exists in a vacuum, unaffected by American behavior - that humiliation at Abu Ghraib, the trauma of nightly bombings, the destruction of entire neighborhoods - do not interrupt the march of freedom.

In a civics class, Iraq might offer a fascinating case study of how the trappings of democracy, including the moving images of heroic voters, can obscure the machinery of foreign control. But real life is not a civics class. Although our politicians and pundits are ignoring the point, "the new Iraq" remains an occupied land, not a free country. For this reason, our misused troops have been consigned to a mission impossible.

Carolyn Eisenberg is a professor of history at Hofstra University. She is the author of Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany.

Published on Thursday, March 31, 2005 by the Long Island daily, NY Newsday