Bremer's Year

There are signs of progress in Iraq -- but plenty of reasons to worry.

| Fri Mar. 26, 2004 4:00 AM EST

On Wednesday, L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, hailed the progress made over the last year in that country: Saddam gone, thousands of new police, an interim constitution, electricity and oil production back to prewar levels. "What a difference a year can make in the life of the Iraqi people,” he said.

There's undoubtedly some truth to that. Despite Bremer’s assurances, though, there are still daunting obstacles to be overcome before Iraq achieves stability and democracy. One basic challenge is of course that of getting Iraq's different ethnic groups to trust each other, and to compromise. As Bremer said: "For Iraq to regain its prosperity and strength it must remain united," he said. "And that unity requires that the interests of all Iraqis be accommodated. In a country as broad and diverse as Iraq it is not possible for every interest to have all it wants."

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Bremer acknowledged that security remains a major problem, with bombings, shootings and other attacks killing Iraqis and Americans almost daily.

But, he said:

"We have 500 courts operating now. All of the prisons have been reopened, and we're building more," he said. "The economy is turning over. We believe that unemployment, which was around 60 percent before liberation, is now 30 percent."

But, as the Los Angeles Times notes, "As U.S. civilian administrator, Bremer has some personal stake in emphasizing the occupation's achievements rather than its shortcomings."

A major shortcoming is the opposition of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of Iraq's majority Shi'ites. Sistani, whose influence is such that he was able to hold up the signing of Iraq's interim constitution until it was amended to his liking, and who derailed U.S. plans for caucus-style elections by insisting on direct elections, now says that he will boycott meetings with the U.N. if the organization backs the interim constitution. In a letter he recently sent to Lakhdar Labrahimi, the UN secretary-general special envoy to Iraq, Sistani criticizes the three-person presidency envisioned in the constitution, whose decisions must be unanimous:

"This constitution that gives the presidency in Iraq to a three-member council, a Kurd, a Sunni Arab and a Shiite Arab, enshrines sectarianism and ethnicity in the future political system in the country. ...

Consensus would not be reached unless there is pressure from a foreign power, or a deadlock would be reached that destabilises the country and could lead to break-up."

He is also critical of a U.N. report agreeing with U.S. authorities that general elections needed months of preparation and were not feasible given Iraq's current instability.

The Shi'ites wanted elections before June 30, the date Washington set to hand back sovereignty to an unelected Iraqi government. They were eager to take power after dominance in Iraq by Sunni Arabs.Under the interim constitution, which was passed earlier this month, elections are due by 2005.

The letter's threatening tone will undoubtedly have an effect on U.N. representatives. "We warn that any such step will be unacceptable to the majority of Iraqis and will have dangerous consequences," Sistani wrote. His latest objections could jeopardise the U.S. handover deadline, or at least undermine the legitimacy of any Iraqi government that assumes power, notes Aljazeera.

On the bright side, quality of life is better now for Iraqis than it was a year ago -- or so a BBC/ABC poll showed last week, finding that 57 percent of Iraqis are happier without Saddam and think life is better now than before the war. Or do they? The poll of 2,737 Iraqis in February was labeled “representative." But Brendan O'Neill of the Guardian wonders how accurate the poll really was:

“It remains questionable whether you can conduct a representative poll in a country that lacks demographic data and where instability is rife. [The poll] does not cover all aspects of postwar Iraq. It asks whether Iraqis have had an encounter with coalition forces, and when they think they should leave, but it does not ask about their day-to-day experience or political view of the occupation. Sahm says "there was no room for that", and some media groups that commissioned the poll "did not want a question about the occupation".”
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