The quiet appointment of Robert D. Blackwell as senior presidential overseer in Iraq has sent tremors shooting through the Washington chain of command all the way to the Pentagon and central Baghdad.
There has been no argument about the new man’s impressive qualifications. However, a chorus of dissent over the appointment came from defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Chairman of the Joint chiefs of staff Gen. Richard Myers. They argued it would give rise to misunderstandings with US commanders in Iraq and act as a major disincentive to US military activity in the field. The general staff would find itself in the confusing situation of still having to work with Bremer while fully aware that the out-of-sight Blackwell was calling the shots behind the administrator’s office. “It’s a bad and unhealthy scene,” a senior source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
Bush quashed their objections, dealing a painful blow to the standing of two of his key team members, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.
Within days of his arrival in Baghdad, Blackwill made two earth-shaking recommendations to the President and Bremer.
The first, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad, was that the US administrator’s handpicked 25-member Iraqi Governing Council served no useful purpose and should be dissolved forthwith, ahead even of the transfer of sovereignty next June to a provisional government chosen by community leaders. Full elections would not be held until 2005. Second, that Governing Council members would not automatically stay in office through the democratization process; they must run for election on equal terms with the other candidates.
Blackwell’s recommendations set up a great outcry in the Council, some of whose members had begun campaigning to ward off the evil hour of the council’s dissolution and were seeking ways of staying in power.
Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shiite council member whose voice is heeded in Washington, is spearheading the lobby against dissolution. In language calculated to appeal to the American public, he was quoted by US news media as saying, “We need the Governing Council as a safety valve for the country. One idea is for the Council to become a council of state, …the final judge of sovereignty.” He is promoting a plan to transform the Governing Council into a senate, while the new interim government created in June 2003 for the transition to sovereignty would be like a lower house of representatives. Chalabi also argues that an elected government would overturn any defense agreement the Governing Council signed with the United States to maintain US troops in Iraq. This problem would be solved by leaving the Governing Council intact in the form of a senate serving as watchdog over the new government.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington say that in private conversations with sympathetic US senators, congressmen and senior Pentagon officials, Chalabi is far more blunt.
“You are getting ready to dump us, the Iraqi opposition leaders who served you so well for so many years,” he said bitterly to one friendly American. “We have lost credibility because we kept faith with you. Elections will finish us. Before any of our candidates can begin counting ballots, he will be assassinated. What do you expect me to do? I have a militia of 3,000 men. Should I sack them? Who knows where they’ll go or who will take them on when they are jobless?”
This was a not-too subtle hint from Chalabi, whom many Iraqis regard as an American pawn, at the possibility of his private army going over to Saddam Hussein’s guerrilla force if he is dropped from government. Other Shiite Council members have voiced similar fears with regard to their power bases and militias.
Some Shiite clerics in Najef and Karbala feel that June 2003 is too soon to transfer sovereign power. Iraqis will not be ready by then to establish a stable government and bring the country into equilibrium. They are asking for a lengthier transition period to allow for fundamental nation-building under the umbrella of US troops. Other Shiite leaders want elections now to capitalize on their majority in the population.
Least worried about this deadline and the coming demise of the Governing Council are the two top Kurdish leaders in Iraq, Jalal Talabani, president of the Governing Council and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Their following of millions of Kurdish tribesmen is solid; their ancestral territorial bases safe. Each commands a militia of 25,000 fighting men, making the “Kurdish army” second in size only to the US armed forces in Iraq.
Talabani has been trying to soften the blow for Chalabi and his camp by interceding with Bremer for a formula that will keep them in office. But he has run into a brick wall. Blackwill will not hear of any such intermediate cushions and, moreover, refuses to receive the Kurdish leader to discuss the point. Resistance to his views is in fact hardening the Bush watchdog’s position against retaining the Governing Council in any form. He strongly recommends that the US administration sever its give-and-take relationship with the Governing Council. Keeping it alive, he insists, invites the emergence of three or even five separate leadership levels in Iraq, with the US owing a debt to each. This would lead to a dangerous type of factionalism with each leadership level vying for control.