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The Tensions of Transition in Iraq

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Kareem M. Kamel

"The Americans will force the new government to do what they want. They have no choice. Many of the ministers have western passports. How can they say no?"1
Ahmed Nuri, Iraqi MA student, University of Baghdad

The concepts of legitimacy, sovereignty, and authority and how they impact the process of nation-building have long intrigued scholars of international politics. Basic political science texts teach that those concepts are integral parts of political power. History has demonstrated that when a government?s legal right to rule is contested by important segments of society, the government?s legitimacy is eroded, and people feel less obliged to obey a government that has little or no legitimacy.

Erosion of a government?s legitimacy also occurs when it fails to administer justice, improve living standards, fairly represent its people, or becomes a tool in the hands of foreign powers. The result is a loss of the ability to control the masses, leading the government to seek a restoration of order through coercion. Consequently, a breakdown of public order ensues, and a state of perpetual conflict erupts between the government and its opponents.

'He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.'
<br />
Thomas Paine

"He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
Thomas Paine

Iraq is a telling example of how a political system created by an occupying power and out of touch with popular aspirations creates the necessary conditions for a perpetual state of civil strife and violent conflict. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq brought about regime change, but more importantly, it lead to the complete collapse of an already weakened Iraqi state. As a result, political authorities in Iraq have to contend with eroded legitimacy, lack of authority, and a loss of sovereignty to occupying forces.

The USA?s plan for Iraqi “transition” involves the appointment of a new caretaker government that assumed “sovereign powers” from the Coalition Provisional Authority on July 1, with USA troops remaining in Iraq with the avowed goal of maintaining security. The caretaker government is expected to prepare for elections to be held towards the end of 2004, which will produce a government with a one-year mandate to draw up a new constitution. The constitution will be put to a vote in a referendum in October 2005, and new elections will be held three months later for the election of a permanent government ? after which the majority of USA troops are expected to leave Iraq .

Despite this seemingly benign and clear-cut formula for the “transfer of power,” a complex matrix of interrelated dilemmas will continue to plague any plan instigated by occupation forces that does not enjoy the consent of mainstream Iraqis. It is noteworthy that the first survey of Iraqis sponsored by the USA Coalition Provisional Authority after the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal shows that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis would feel safer if coalition forces left immediately, without even waiting for next year?s elections. In fact, about 80% said that they have “no confidence” in either the USA civilian authorities or coalition forces, and only 1% said that coalition forces contributed to their sense of security.2

The continued existence of the conditions necessary for serious and sustained violent conflict make it highly unlikely that the new interim government or occupation forces will be able to govern a peaceful, stable Iraq.

The Future of the Insurgency

The continuing presence of occupation forces in Iraq ensures that the current spiral of conflict will continue to outpace efforts aimed at political dialogue and consensus-building. After the fall of Saddam?s regime, USA policymakers and planners were working on the assumption that USA forces would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi public. But the continued lack of basic services, economic and political stagnation, brutality and humiliation at the hands of occupying forces, and most of all, the failure of occupying troops to maintain security for the average Iraqi, has meant that “the honeymoon period of universal welcome for coalition forces” only lasted a few weeks at most.3

Under occupation, Baghdad is now ranked the worst out of 215 cities assessed by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, with the lowest score based on “detailed assessments and evaluations of 39 key quality-of-life determinants, including economic, human and social services, as well as security and safety."4

Unofficial estimates compiled in March put the Iraqi civilian death toll since the start of the war at 10,000. Hundreds of Iraqis were killed by USA and United Kingdom forces during the war; the rest died due to the use of excessive force by coalition forces, unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs, or during violent house searches that are often accompanied by property damage and looting.5 Thousands more died in the past few months in clashes between USA forces and insurgents in Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala , Kufa, and other Iraqi cities. Recent estimates suggest that in April alone, USA forces killed as many as 4,000 Iraqis, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen.6

For most Iraqis, liberation would entail both the removal of dictatorship and foreign presence. The USA failed to consider the Arab world?s historical lack of tolerance of foreign occupation; long, bloody wars were waged against the French occupation of Morocco and Algeria, the British occupation of Iraq, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Southern Lebanon . Additionally, Iraq ?s porous borders, the unifying ideology of Islamism, and the modern-day appeal of jihad continue to provide a very large pool of recruits willing to fight against a foreign occupier.

Recent tactical agreements reached with insurgents in Fallujah, Najaf, and elsewhere in Iraq reflect recognition by the USA that the insurgency is not being carried out by bandits or isolated remnants of the old regime, but is deeply rooted in the Iraqi population and hence impossible to defeat militarily.7 In fact, USA military officials recently told the Associated Press that Iraqi guerillas can deploy loyalists to boost their forces to as many as 20,000, many of whom are highly-specialized, professional fighters. This is significantly larger than previous estimates, which put the number of Iraqi guerillas at around 5,000.8

Steven Metz, Director of Research at the USA Army War College?s Strategic Studies Institute, eloquently explains the reasons for the ongoing Iraqi insurgency:

An insurgency is born when a governing power fails to address social or regional polarization, sectarianism, endemic corruption, crime, various forms of radicalism, or rising expectations. The margin of error is narrower for an outside occupying power than for an inept or repressive national regime as people tend to find the mistakes or bad behavior by one of their own more tolerable than that of outsiders. Because imperialism was delegitimized in the second half of the twentieth century, minor errors of judgment or practice have provoked armed opposition against rule by outsiders.9

Another element that makes the establishment of durable political agreements difficult is the historically bloody nature of Iraqi politics ? Iraq?s coups and revolutions since the 1950s have been significantly bloodier than those of its Arab neighbors.10 Perhaps the most vivid manifestation of this trend is the ongoing assassinations campaign carried out by insurgents against officials seen as collaborating with the USA. The past month alone saw the assassination of three senior Iraqi officials: Iraq?s interim Deputy Foreign Minister, Bassam Qubba, Ghazi al-Talabani, the security chief for Iraq?s northern oil fields, and most significantly, Ezzedine Salim, leader of the now dissolved Iraqi Governing Council.

In some cases where police stations were targeted by insurgents, officers and civil servants actually joined the insurgents or disengaged from normal police work to avoid being targeted.11 In addition, the targeting of oil production facilities and pipelines has seriously hurt Iraqi revenues. Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi stated that pipeline sabotage cost the country more than $200 million in lost revenues, with more than 130 attacks targeting Iraq ?s oil infrastructure in the past seven months alone.12 More recently, the bombing of both the Kirkuk oil fields? pipelines in the north and Basra?s southern pipelines resulted in the complete halt of Iraqi oil exports.13

The Specter of Civil Conflict

One of the main characteristics of post-Saddam Iraq has been the strengthening of primordial loyalties, manifested in ethnic, sectarian, religious, or tribal affiliations, at the expense of a unified Iraqi identity. Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds have different blueprints for Iraq , and each group is seeking to maximize its own communitarian-based interests. This divisive trend was augmented by America?s “divide and rule” policies and a sectarian-based approach to Iraqi politics.

Since the fall of Saddam?s regime, Shiite and Kurdish leaders have been given widespread international recognition and a much larger share of power in terms of political authority. Although Iraq?s Sunni Arabs have historically been Iraq?s leading political community and enjoyed prominence in the Iraqi bureaucracy, occupation authorities deliberately marginalized and sidestepped them, seeing them as the defunct regime?s support base. In fact, the marginalization of Sunni Arabs in Iraqi politics is one of the main reasons fueling the anti-USA insurgency in Sunni areas ? for many Sunni Arabs, participation in the insurgency is the only means by which to influence the political life of the country.14

In addition to Sunni marginalization, there are struggles within the Shiite community itself that will have definite repercussions in the coming period. For months, the Shiite community in Iraq has been torn between Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani?s calls for peaceful resistance and Moqtada al-Sadr?s declaration of war on the occupation, with fighting breaking out between their supporters during Firday prayers last month.15 In contrast to al-Sadr?s militancy, the supporters of al-Sistani and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq are spreading a message of patience and inevitable victory. They seek to establish, through elections, an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite clerics.

Iraq ?s Kurds have been the most welcoming of the USA presence in Iraq . Since the fall of Saddam?s regime, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) have strengthened themselves through the seizure of heavy weaponry from Iraqi army units. Those weapons could be used for the expansion of Kurdish territory, the seizure of oil facilities in the north, or improving the Kurd?s bargaining position vis-?-vis Arab nationalists or Turkomans.16 The Kurds recently threatened to withdraw from the transitional government to protest the “failure of the latest UN resolution on Iraq to account for Kurdish autonomy and concerns."17 Tensions had already been heightened by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani?s reference to the interim constitution drawn up in March as “null and void,” a reference occasioned by the self-dissolution of the Iraqi Governing Council. Al-Sistani also rejected the constitutional clause granting the Kurds a veto power over the final constitution.18


Disregarding the United State ?s cosmetic attempts at giving Iraq ?s new governing authority an aura of legitimacy through the G-8 summit and a UN resolution, popular perceptions of the new government are what make the difference. The selection of ex-Baathist and former CIA collaborator Iyad Allawi as Iraq ?s Prime Minister was a disastrous choice, highlighting the hypocrisy of the Bush administration?s claims to be bringing democracy to Iraq .

Iyad Allawi has a long record of support for Washington and championed the USA-led invasion of Iraq . More disturbing, however, is his alleged involvement in a series of bombings in Iraq in the early 1990s which killed as many as a hundred civilians.19 Currently, Allawi?s main focus is the rebuilding of Iraq ?s repressive security apparatus to expedite the detention and interrogation of suspects. His proven record of ruthlessness prompted CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack to cynically comment on Allawi?s choice as Prime Minister: “Send a thief to a catch a thief."20

The coming months will see Iraq enter a crucial stage in its modern history. The viability of USA commitments will be tested, with the stability of the entire Middle East at risk. Indeed, the succession of illegitimate governments created at the behest of occupation forces will generate unrest, resentment, and more militancy, fomenting uprisings against an unjust political order protected from abroad. Pervasive insecurity, coupled with fears of a spillover from a possible Iraqi civil war, may encourage neighboring states to recruit allies inside Iraq, with each state working to tilt the political equation in its favor. Iraq could ultimately be sucked into an unending spiral of violence that might draw the entire Middle East into ceaseless conflict.

While one can only hope that Iraq will regain its former pre-eminence as one of the Middle East ?s most influential players, free from domestic oppression and foreign occupation, the continued presence of occupation forces and the rule of illegitimate governments suggest that prospects of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” continue to loom large on the horizon.

Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He has an MA in International Relations and is specialized in security studies, decision- making, nuclear politics, Middle East politics and the politics of Islam. He is currently assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo.


1. Jonathan Steele, “Liberation Will Only Come When the Americans Leave,” Axis of Logic Year, June 18th, 2004

2. Michael Hirsh, “Grim Numbers,” MSNBC/Newsweek, June 15th, 2004

3. Steven Metz, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq ,” Washington Quarterly Winter 2003-2004

4. Abdul-Hadi Jiad Tamimi, “Chaos versus hope in Iraq ,” Al-Jazeera (English) ,March 9th, 2004

5. Nicole Choueiry, “Justice Yet to be Delivered in Iraq ,” Al-Jazeera (English) , March 16th, 2004

6. “Iraq Insurgency Larger Than Thought,” USA Today Year="2004”, July 9th, 2004

7. Tony Karon, “Letting Go of Iraq ,” Year 2004, June 4th, 2004

8. “Iraq Insurgency Larger Than Thought,” USA Today, July 9th, 2004

9. Steven Metz, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq ,” Washington Quarterly Winter 2003-2004

10. James Dobbins, et al. America?s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq ( RAND , 2003)

11. Martin Asser, “Iraqi Insecurity Threatens Progress,” BBC News

12. “Allawi Blames Insurgents For Huge Oil Losses,”, June 11th, 2004

13. “Attacks on Southern Oil Pipelines Brings Iraq?s Production to a Halt,” Jihad Unspun, June 16th, 2004

14. Gareth Stansfield, “The Reshaping of Sunni Politics in Iraq ,” Al-Jazeera (English) March 15th, 2004

15. Ahmed Janabi, “Tense Najaf Sparks Division Fears,” Al-Jazeera (English), June 12th, 2004

16. James Dobbins, et al. America?s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq ( RAND , 2003)

17. “Allawi : No Conflict With Kurdish Parties,” Al-Jazeera (English), June 11th, 2004

18. Ibid.

19. Peter Symonds, “Iraq?s New Prime Minister, the CIA and their Record of Terrorist Bombings,” Axis of Logic June 18th, 2004

20. Ibid.

Published Wednesday, July 21st, 2004 - 04:48pm GMT

Article courtesy of Islam Online

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