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Iraq's Odd New 'friends'

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September 16, 2003 -- WHEN first announced a couple of months ago, Iraq's Governing Council was shunned by several Arab states as "non-representative." France, Germany and a few other Saddam nostalics complained of the council's "nondemocratic nature." The United Nations, where fudging matters is a refined art, invited the Governing Council to address the Security Council, but refused to let it occupy Iraq's seat.

Emboldened, all who opposed change in Iraq rushed to attack the council as a "club of quislings." A number of self-styled religious leaders in Egypt and Lebanon even issued "fatwas" forbidding contact with the "unclean" council.

Even some of those who had supported Iraq's liberation complained about of the council's failure to pick a single chairman and its failure to curtail debate and take quick decisions. (Actually, these are positive points. The council has adopted a rotating presidency in contrast to the Iraqi tradition of rule by a strongman. This insistence that all issues should be debated for as long as necessary is also a welcome break from the tradition of one man, or a handful of men, taking quick decisions based on illusions.)

Now, however, the wheel of fortune has turned for the council. In Baghdad, a string of foreign dignitaries wait in line to meet the members of the council or the ministers appointed by them. In some 60 countries, notably including Russia, Iran and Turkey, Iraqi embassies, consulates and legations have already been handed over to people named by the council.

And this month, ignoring some huffing and puffing by one or two members, the Arab League formally welcomed Iraq's interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. This week Iraq will regain its seats in the Organization of the Islamic Conference and OPEC.

On the "fatwa" front, the Sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, has expressed support for the council. Tantawi, Egypt's senior theologian, has described as "fools" the mullahs and muftis who call for a boycott of the Iraq Governing Council.

And that is not all. The council has suddenly emerged as the central piece in a strategy that France and Germany are proposing for Iraq.

"We want an immediate transfer of power from the Americans to the Governing Council," a spokesman for the German foreign ministry said.

The French media, reflecting President Jacques Chirac's thinking, are also campaigning for replacement of the American interim administrator Paul Bremer by the Governing Council.

What is the reason for these dramatic changes in attitude?

The most obvious reason is that all those who opposed the liberation of Iraq are now convinced that, despite current problems, there is no possibility of a return of the Ba'athist regime or of a disintegration of the country.

Iraq may have a couple of hard years ahead. But it has all that is needed to become a success story in the medium and longer term. No power interested in the Middle East could afford to stay out of Iraq and sulk.

To enter Iraq right now, however, it is necessary to acknowledge the leading role of the United States. And this is precisely what many opponents of the war wish to avoid. They believe they can circumvent the problem by drawing a wedge between America and the council.

Three models for the transition period are under study:

* The East Timor model, under which the United Nations will declare a mandate on Iraq and run the country until the emergence of a freely elected government.

That model, supported by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, enjoyed some initial support from several members of the Governing Council, notably Adnan Pachachi, himself a former foreign minister of Iraq. Now, however, there is virtually no support for it on the council. Russia and China indicated some support but appear open to other options.

* The second model is Cambodia, where the United Nations worked alongside an existing government.

France and Germany support this model. Roughly, the scenario would run as follows: The U.N. will recognize the Governing Council as the sole representative of Iraqi sovereignty. The Bremer administration will then be transformed into a U.S. aid project in Iraq. The United Nations will then assume control of Iraq in a period of transition. The U.N. representative in Iraq will then fix a timetable for writing a new constitution and holding elections to create a new state and government. (France's candidate for the post: Francois Leotard, the former French defense minister).

* The third model is Afghanistan, where the United States remains in a leadership position alongside the government of Hamid Karzai. The idea is to increase the authority of the Governing Council and let the newly created Council of Ministers assume genuine executive power. The U.S. representatives would then act as an upper chamber of a parliament, retaining an effective veto on key questions until an elected government is in place.

The question for the Bush administration: Is it worth it to expose Iraq to international diplomatic rivalry in exchange for what is bound to be minimal material and military U.N. support?

The only justification for involving the U.N. may have to do with domestic politics. Bush may want to be able to tell voters the U.N. is now on board.

This is precisely why France, Germany and a few others who don't wish Bush re-elected are determined to push the price so high as to make it impossible for Washington to accept without losing control of the situation in Iraq.

The message that Paris and Berlin wish to convey is this: Bush and his "neocons" created a mess, now we enter to save Iraq from destruction.

E-mail: [email protected]

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