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Angry Iraqi leaders anxious to fill political vacuum
By Greg Barrett | GNS
WASHINGTON - Attempts by the White House to install democracy in Iraq seem clumsy to Imam Hush'am Al-Husainy, like an American movie dubbed badly in Arabic.
To Al-Husainy and other Iraqi exiles, the words and actions of U.S. officials appear confusingly out of sync.
"There is a gap, a delay,'' said Al-Husainy, a Michigan resident and a Shiite cleric with the influential Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. "It's very hard for the Iraqi people to understand. ... It has changed our trust of America to mistrust.''
This disconnect between what some Iraqi leaders believe they had been promised - immediate and independent control - and the reality of founding a democracy is at the core of increasingly strained relations with the United States.
Even members of the seven leading Iraqi exile groups that argued for the U.S.-led invasion feel a sense of betrayal.
"A social explosion could happen if they keep promising things and making people hopeful and then disappoint them,'' said Supreme Council political adviser Ibrahim Hammoudi, an Iraqi exile living in Iran.
Listening to both sides gives the impression they are speaking different languages, literally and figuratively.
Retired Gen. Jay Garner, formerly the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, said Wednesday that the agreement was never to rush democracy. Or to turn political control immediately over to the Iraqis.
"I've had dozens of meetings with the seven (exile) groups and they never saw themselves as independent,'' Garner said. "The first imperative they laid down was they would come under the control of the (coalition) authority and would work with the authority. They were very accommodating in that way.''
Built too quickly, democracy is like a house constructed on sand, he said. Iraq's political foundation needs to be concrete and its government must evolve from the voices of all Iraqis.
Garner said he thought the Iraqis understood. He and President Bush's special envoy to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, have met with hundreds of Iraqi representatives this spring. As far as nationwide elections, Garner said, ``there was never a date on the wall.''
But Iraqi exiles and locals say they want nothing to do with the recent decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority - the U.S.-led group running Iraq - to appoint the committee that will select interim leaders and write Iraq's new constitution.
"Iraq wants free elections, not appointments,'' Al-Husainy said.
He said White House officials who met with the seven largest Iraqi exile groups pledged in prewar meetings in Washington, London and the northern Iraq city of Irbil, ``that Americans would have nothing to do with an interim government and they would not put down (leaders) we choose.''
Last month, U.S. military commanders and the Coalition Provisional Authority halted mayoral elections in several Iraqi towns out of fears all the people were not represented. Paul Bremer, who replaced Garner in May, said the best-organized candidates were "rejectionists'' - Iraqis opposed to democracy - former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and fundamental Islamists.
The mayoral election in the Shiite-city of Najaf was postponed twice before being canceled altogether. A few weeks later, the U.S.-appointed mayor, a Sunni Muslim who had been an artillery colonel in the Iraqi Army, was arrested by the U.S. military on charges that included embezzlement and kidnapping.
The popular front-runner in Najaf's canceled mayoral elections had been Asad Sultan Abu Gilal, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, a fundamentalist group formed by exiles living in Iran.
"The coalition power is trying to control the situation without any (input) from the people,'' said the supreme council's Hammoudi, speaking from Tehran through an interpreter. "The sooner the people start to take on their own responsibilities to manage their government, the better it will be for the Iraqi people and the better it will look for President Bush's promise'' of democracy.
The origin of the misunderstanding between the exile groups and U.S. officials might have its roots in an April 15 meeting in Nasiriyah, Garner said.
About 150 Iraqi leaders - exiles and locals, Arabs and Kurds, Sunni, Shiite and Christian - had gathered in a billowing white tent to meet with Garner and Khalilzad.
Garner, an easygoing Southerner described by Hammoudi as inclusive and likable, pronounced, ``A free Iraq and democratic Iraq will begin today ...''
For Iraqis who had endured the iron rule of Saddam, it was an exciting thing to hear. But some of them may not have fully grasped the significance of what Garner said next:
"... with the fact that you are able to come here and freely talk about your future government.''
It was only a beginning, Garner said Wednesday.
The Iraqi leaders have with them today a 13-point declaration that was agreed to at the meeting in Nasiriyah. It calls for a federal democracy representing Iraq's different religions and factions and towns and cities. But it does not set a deadline.
On April 28, 300 Iraqis representing the same variety of groups met in Baghdad with Garner and Khalilzad. The Iraqis decided at that meeting that they would convene a national political convention and elect an interim Iraqi government by the end of May.
Garner had left the meeting by then, but Khalilzad relayed the news to him.
"Zal never agreed to that, even though it has been widely (mis)quoted that he did,'' Garner said. "Zal is great at letting people vent. ... He just let everybody say what they wanted to say that day. He never made a commitment to them for anything.''
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 passed in May stressed "the right of Iraqi people to freely determine their own political future and control their own natural resources.'' It says the transition of authority should be done "as efficiently and effectively as possible.'' It also sets no deadline.
The White House said this spring that a freely elected democratic Iraqi government could be in place as early as 2005.
The leaders of the most influential Shiite groups have reacted with varying degrees of patience.
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr Al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq and its feared militia, asked Iraqis last month to put down their weapons and protest only verbally.
A week later, he told reporters in London that ``legal and peaceful'' methods would work only temporarily. ``Then we will think about other methods,'' he said.
Hammoudi said this week that Al-Hakim's comment was not a threat of violence.
"He is the one trying to control the people and give them some hope until they can elect their government,'' he said. "It is not a language of threatening. It's one of concern.''
Al-Hakim's comment in London came the day after Bremer gave Iraqis a blunt reality check at a July 1 news conference in Baghdad. There will be no nationwide elections in Iraq anytime soon, he said.
In tones of obvious annoyance, he catalogued the reasons:
"Number one ... the 1970 (Iraqi) constitution, which is still in effect, does not provide for elections. Number two, there is no census. Number three, there is no voter register. Number four, there are no constituent boundaries. Number five, there is no electoral law. Number six, there is no law governing political parties. I could go on. The point is there is simply no way to conduct national elections.''
As a starting point, the coalition authority will appoint a representative national convention that will draw up a constitution. Today, there are town councils either appointed or elected in most of Iraq's 23 major cities.
"The first process of democracy in Iraq began on April 15,'' Garner said of the tent meeting in Nasiriyah.
But democracy is an evolution, he added. It can be a difficult thing to explain to people who were controlled by a dictator for 33 years - then liberated in a 21-day war.
"Right now you have the terrorists and the quasi-guerilla warfare,'' he said. "But that will all be cleaned up ... and five years from now Iraq will be a model for the Middle East. Iranians and Syrians are going to look across the border and say, 'Why can't we be like that?'''