Iraq has a new government, but there is a long way to go before it is a sovereign nation

02 June 2004

It has taken a month of hard politicking and a week of even harder bargaining between the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqi Governing Council and the UN for Iraq finally to get a new government to take the country to elections after the official handover of sovereignty on 30 June. Not that the Governing Council, which got its way on most of the key appointments, was ready to wait until then. Barely had the new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced a President of his and his colleagues' choice in Ghazi Yawer than the Council wound itself up with immediate effect.

So out go Adnan Pachachi, America's first choice for President, and the now disgraced Ahmed Chalabi. In stay seven Council members in the 21-strong new Government. And newly added are a dozen technocrats and ethnic representatives proposed by the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. The messy way in which a government was finally brought into being is not exactly what President Bush or Prime Minister Blair wanted, despite their rush to acclaim the new Iraqi government. But then it's not altogether what Brahimi wished either. He had originally hoped to make the interim government a Cabinet of largely non-political experts but was outmanoeuvred by an Iraqi Council determined not to be sidelined. Nor, crucially, do we know yet whether it is what the Iraqi people want, given the low regard with which the Council is held through the country.

President Bush yesterday declared this as "one step" towards a free and sovereign Iraq. No one can dispute that. At the simplest level this marks the first government of Iraqis agreed by Iraqis since Saddam Hussein fell. Sovereignty will still not be transferred until 30 June. But Iraqis have a chance to get an administration up and running which can give them real authority in the running of the country and an independent voice in the world.

Which is presumably why the Iraqi Council was so keen to dissolve itself and get on with its new team. Or rather its reformed old team. For that still remains the problem for this cabinet, as for the international community which must judge how far to back it. This is not a final government by the Iraqis for the Iraqis. That will only come when elections are held in December or January. It is what it is termed: an interim administration which will operate, even after the transfer of sovereignty, in a situation in which the US will still call the security shots.

It is easy to accuse the Americans of trying to hold on to the reins behind the scenes. That would be unfair. President Bush desperately wants to get the Iraqi problem off his back before the November elections. The more the Iraqis are in charge, the better, provided American lives do not seem endangered. The new Prime Minister and his colleagues are equally keen to seem independent of Washington. Hence the extent to which they have voiced criticism of the occupation forces.

The real task, however, remains to get the country to elections when the security situation is deteriorating; when much of the country has turned against the occupying forces and anyone seen as their stooges; and when there are growing separatist pressures.

What we have seen so far is an old-fashioned struggle for the political spoils of office. What we have yet to see is a move towards effective self-rule. The key issues of sovereignty - the disposal of oil revenues and the direction of the security forces - have yet to be clarified. Even yesterday's announcement served only to increase the confusion over who was responsible for the appointments. President Bush said it was clearly Brahimi's call. The Council said it was their decision.

That no one yesterday disowned the interim government, even among the Shia clergy, marks a success of sorts. That no one in Iraq seemed ready to rush out with enthusiastic support remains reason for caution. This is a process which will require many more steps, some backward as well as forward, before Iraq can emerge as a fully sovereign and independent country.