Fri, 18 Jul 2003

Real Iraqi sovereignty

The continuing violence in the streets of Baghdad and other major cities in Iraq have overshadowed a significant development in Iraq this week: the establishment of a governing council comprising representatives of the nation's various ethnic and religious groups on Monday.

This is a major step in restoring the sovereignty of the people of Iraq, which was wrested from them by the United States in March, when it invaded the country to oust the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. As important as democracy may be to the people of Iraq, it is also important that they have real sovereignty.

In fact, the two must go hand in hand if Iraq is to have real and lasting stability and prosperity. One could even argue that sovereignty must predate the building of a more democratic society in Iraq.

At this stage of development in Iraq, debating whether it was right or wrong for the United States to invade Iraq has become a moot point. For better or for worse, the invasion has taken place. No thorough or extensive debate would restore Iraq to its pre-March position; suffice it to say that the U.S.-led coalition forces have rid Baghdad of Saddam, and that the United States is the de facto ruler of Iraq today.

Washington decided -- unilaterally and against the majority international public opinion -- on the invasion of Iraq in March. One of the privileges of being the only global superpower is that it can ignore world opinion, but it does so at its own peril.

From their initial reception as liberators, the American military is now seen by many Iraqis as an occupation force. While their presence is necessary lest Iraq degenerate into a complete anarchy, there has to be a time frame -- a clear schedule for when the U.S. intends to pull out of the country. The establishment of the governing council is a step in that direction.

The longer the Americans stay in Iraq, the more resentment it will create among the Iraqi people. This has been the case in most countries occupied by foreign forces. No matter how noble their initial intentions, foreign military forces would, sooner or later, overstay their welcome. It is also proven historically that the longer they stay, the more difficult it becomes to leave.

This is exactly what is happening in Iraq today. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein is turning out to be the easiest task of all. Rebuilding Iraq, virtually from ashes without an effective government in place, and without police to maintain peace and order, is a daunting task.

At the moment, that task and responsibility is in the hands of the United States, but it is increasingly becoming doubtful whether Washington can continue to do this by itself without the help of other countries.

The violence in the streets of Iraq, including the attacks on American troops, suggest the need for a revision of Washington's Iraq policy. The U.S. must now seriously consider whether it will continue to be the one in charge of Iraq and absorb all the risks that comes with being an occupation force, or to hand over the authority of managing Iraq to the United Nations, which has long experience in running transitional governments.

While many countries have agreed to help the United States to rebuild Iraq, including sending troops or police to oversee peace and order, most of them would feel much more comfortable if they were deployed under the United Nations flag.

Currently, most countries, including Indonesia, do not recognize the newly established governing council as the legitimate representative body of the Iraqi people. The United Nations, in spite of its support for the establishment of the council, cannot regard the council as the legitimate government either, as long as real sovereignty remains in the hands of the American rulers.

A transfer of authority to the United Nations, therefore, would achieve two goals: greater support from countries in the reconstruction of Iraq, and more widespread international recognition of the governing council as the legitimate representative of the people of Iraq.

The sooner the American forces leave Iraq, the better it will be all around. Another way of looking at this is that the sooner the Iraqis regain their sovereignty, the better it is for them, and for the United States.