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Think Nationally, Govern Locally

Why the Iraqi governing council shouldn't be in any rush to assume more authority.

11:00 PM, Nov 13, 2003 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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THE IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL is in trouble, or so it seems as Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer abruptly canceled his meetings in Iraq November 11 and headed home for a hastily arranged powwow with Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, et al, to try to put their "democratization" effort back together again.

Newspaper reports indicate that U.S. authorities in Baghdad are unhappy with the lack of progress made by the 24-member, American-appointed Iraqi governing council. The core task of the council--a group largely comprised of high-profile exiles--was to set in motion a constitutional process that would form the basis of a democratically elected Iraqi government. The administration imposed a December 15 deadline for the council to come up with a firm plan--a deadline they seem unlikely to meet.

So U.S. authorities appear to be reaching the end of their rope with the council. Its members are reportedly complaining that they have not been given powers to actually govern Iraq and that they could stem the increasingly deadly tide of attacks against U.S. forces if given more influence over security decisions.

But the worst thing the United States could do is give the interim council more authority right now.

For one thing, most Iraqis don't consider the governing council legitimate, and, at least in the Shiite south, don't really want them meddling in local affairs. Coalition military officers putting the shattered south back together say they'd be happy to get the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA's) money, but they've got things running in their governates just fine, thank you very much.

There's also a more fundamental rejection of the council--one that stems from the country's Baathist legacy. For many years, Saddam Hussein manipulated the Shiite south by ruling with an iron fist, squeezing the region's basic services--such as electricity and fuel--which flowed at the whim of officials in the Iraqi capital.

A Dutch military officer who was set to oversee the governance of al Muthanna said he was actually worried that the eventual influence of the appointees in Baghdad would alienate, rather than help, locals in al Samawah, the provincial capital. He compared the overarching influence of the governing council with the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein.

"It's becoming a push-pull relationship with the authorities in Baghdad," said Maj. Rudolf Keijzer, of the Dutch Royal Marines. "They want to control industry up in Baghdad. I don't see that as a way to move to a market economy."

LOCAL TOWN COUNCILS are determining for themselves where their interests reside--deciding where the limited electrical power should be routed, how the local judicial systems should conduct their courts and determining where (with the consultation of coalition military authorities) aid should be distributed.

Sure, there's a risk of disenfranchisement and favoritism, but certainly the needs of al Samawah residents, for example, are closer to the hearts of Samawah council members than to those living in the heavily guarded compounds of Baghdad.

And some government authorities were all but ignored by coalition authorities in Baghdad. American troops in Karbala recounted a story of discovering customs officers sitting in their empty offices for weeks, waiting for someone--anyone--in Baghdad to call and put them back to work. The CPA didn't call, so the troops on the ground did it for them.

Likewise, the coalition forces that helped give birth to Iraq's new civil society shrugged at the mention of CPA and the governing council. At least as late as July--three months after the military conquest of Iraq--the burgeoning local governments hadn't seen one red cent from Baghdad. By that point, military advisors had put their Iraqi counterparts well on the way to self-rule--for the first time without the tyranny of oversight from Baghdad they'd always known.

Reports indicate that in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, things are going much the same as they are in the south: economies are running, court systems are dispensing justice, and the region is gearing up for the export of oil. Once revenue from oil flows into both regions, perhaps the CPA and its Iraqi appointees will matter even less.

With its growing frustration with the governing council's foot dragging, the hard lesson the Bush administration could come to realize is that, at least where the governance of the Iraqi north and south is concerned, less is more.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. He spent six weeks on assignment in Iraq this summer.