Iraq under starter’s gun

This week the US launched its six-month race to hand formal power over to the Iraqis themselves. June 30 is the planned completion date, after which Iraq will, at least in theory, take its own decisions (though the US continues to have up to 100,000 troops in the country). February 28 is the deadline for agreement on an interim constitution.
One of the many contentious questions still facing the planners is whether the proposed new Iraqi government will be elected, selected or a bit of both. The formula designed by the US in November, in the hope of disentangling itself as speedily as possible from Iraq, envisages a selection process through a series of committees. In the first stage, committees are to be set up in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Most members would be appointed either by the Governing Council or by provincial councils, but there is room under the formula for a minority to be elected. These committees would then select members for caucuses which, in their turn, would select a parliament. The parliament would then pick a government.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shiite father figure has, at least until now, been holding out for elections to be held before the official handover. His reasoning is simple: Iraq’s Shiite majority could be expected to win such elections, and win them overwhelmingly if the chosen electoral system was first past the post, which would wipe out the Sunni vote in many multi-sectarian Iraqi districts.
But this week there were reports that Sistani may have yielded to American and other persuasion that “fair” elections before June 30 would not be possible. A quick election could, in fact, be remarkably dirty. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported last week, Paul Bremer, the US administrator, has agreed with Sistani and Jalal Talabani, a leading Kurd, that voter registration should be delayed. Instead, voter eligibility would be determined simply by presentation of the ration books issued by the Saddam Hussein regime. Although the rationing system, unlike almost everything else under the old regime, was run reasonably efficiently and fairly, the proposed voting scheme opens the prospect of the wholesale manufacture of forged ration books.
No less contentious is the form of federation that Iraq may enjoy under its yet-to-be-designed constitution. The Kurdish parties, knowing that full independence, the first choice of many, is beyond their grasp, have long been pressing for as loose a federation as possible, continuing the virtual autonomy their region is enjoyed since 1991. They want their own legal system, investment code and tax regime, and control over the revenue from oilfields in their region. Above all they want their security to be in the hands of their own militia, barring federal troops from their territory.
The Kurds are confident that they will get much of what they want. They will have been helped by a crucial new pact, reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, between Sistani and Talabani. If these two leaders have overcome their traditional differences, they may be planning, in effect, to divide the future spoils of a future Iraq between them, leaving the once-powerful Sunni Arab minority out of the picture.
Things could still go very wrong and Talabani continues to keep other options alive. Moreover, as Debka sources reveal, many Kurds are looking beyond their self-rule enclave to the oil-rich territories of Kirkuk and Mosul, which once had Kurdish majorities. The demography changed, and these cities were not included in the Kurdish enclave.

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