How can a former CIA man be an honest broker in Iraq?

30 May 2004

This United States administration will never learn. It is critical to George Bush's hope of re-election in November that the notional handover of power in Baghdad be seen by the Iraqi people as legitimate. Yet the Americans could not stop themselves manipulating the choice of interim prime minister.

As The New York Times reported yesterday, in the kind of headline unique to the American press, "Surprising Choice for Premier of Iraq Reflects US Influence". Amid the confusion of Friday's news, two facts stand out. One is that Iyad Allawi used to work for the CIA; the other is that he was not chosen by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy.

Mr Brahimi was the guarantor that the interim government of Iraq would be independent of the US. But Mr Allawi was chosen on Friday by the Iraqi Governing Council, which is generally seen in Iraq as a puppet theatre. Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator, attended the session and congratulated Mr Allawi on his nomination. Mr Brahimi did not. He was left to say, through his spokesman, that he "respects" the decision and could work with Mr Allawi. All he would say himself, when a journalist spoke to him in Baghdad, was: "You know, sometimes people think I am a free agent out here."

Not any more.

The idea that the Iraqi people will rally behind Mr Allawi and accept him as an honest broker charged with overseeing national elections by the end of January 2005 must now be added to the long list of Bush-Rumsfeld delusions. It is difficult to foresee anything other than yet more bloodshed and disorder stretching up to and beyond the US presidential election in November.

What is extraordinary is that the Bush administration, having made so many mistakes in Iraq, each compounding the original disastrous decision to embark on this imperial adventure, continues to make yet more. Iraqi elections were postponed until after the US ones because the Americans feared that they would be won by supporters of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia leader. That has only incited the nationalist insurgency and strengthened the hand of more extreme Shia leaders. The nomination of Mr Allawi will reinforce both trends.

If our hope that Mr Bush might learn from his mistakes has been repeatedly dashed, however, so has our hope that Tony Blair might at last start to exert his much-vaunted influence on his friend. It was reported that the British advised early elections in Iraq; if so, they were brushed aside. It has been suggested that, in the drafting of the resolution shortly to be considered by the UN, the British have "bounced" the Americans into ceding ultimate authority over US troops in Iraq. But, if it turns out that Iraqi sovereignty means anything at all in the UN resolution, which is more likely: that it was secured by British "influence" or outright French, Russian and Chinese opposition?

The only kind of influence over the Bush administration that matters is the prospect of electoral defeat. The US electorate may have given the President the benefit of the doubt over the invasion itself, but they can recognise incompetence when they see it. This is not a time for whispering in deaf ears, but for the brutal exercise of the threat of American humiliation in Iraq. Mr Blair could, if he wanted, demand a heavy price for continuing to provide Mr Bush with the cover he needs with US domestic opinion. The Prime Minister must use it, or lose any claim to recover some respect from the ruins of Iraq.