Is It Time to Bag Baghdad?

The insurgency has destabilized and isolated Iraq's capital, so it's time to empower the regions, says one Mideast expert

By Stan Crock

Two years ago, I wrote a column that was a pop quiz in Reconstruction 101, and the extra-credit question was: Which is more important in reconstructing a war-torn country: Effectiveness or legitimacy? (See BW Online, 5/19/03, "Bush Is Flunking Reconstruction 101".)

It was a trick question, for I would argue that effectiveness brings its own legitimacy. The best way for the occupation force in Iraq to establish legitimacy would have been to get a reputation for delivering everything from water and electricity to education and health care. U.S. troops needed to show Iraqis some benefit arising from Uncle Sam's presence in their country.


  Now I'm hearing a similar opinion voiced about the Iraqi transitional government from one of America's most astute and knowledgeable Iraq experts. Phebe Marr just returned from a visit to Iraq -- or more precisely to the Green Zone, the only place safe enough to venture in. She is a retired professor who specialized in modern Iraq history and who now is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Marr sees a few glimmers of hope in a dismal situation, and she has some ideas about what should be done as we move ahead. The focal point of efforts in Iraq, Marr says, should be on the provinces rather than Baghdad. One reason is that the regions have a better chance of getting things done. The other is that the regions are home to leaders who could emerge as the next wave of influential political officials.

Because of the insurgency, Marr says, Baghdad is cut off from much of the rest of the country, so the capital can provide only limited assistance to other parts of the nation. What's needed is progress toward a federal system that replaces the highly centralized model used by Saddam Hussein.


  The Kurds already exert control in the North. But elsewhere, in such places as Basra and Najaf, other factions could do the same thing, she says. Such a system would reflect the reality of the ethnic and sectarian forces at work in the country without necessarily tearing it asunder.

Baghdad is handicapped for another reason. Call it Jaafarian democracy, rather than Jeffersonian democracy. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is doing an admirable job of horse-trading in an attempt to craft realistic compromises with other political groups. But Marr says he has trouble with his own constituency, which hampers his ability to make decisions.

The good news is that a real and independent politics is taking hold as policymakers gear up to write a new constitution. Even the Sunnis are rethinking their boycott of Iraqi politics. The bad news is that all of this is time-consuming, and Iraq doesn't have the luxury of time before it starts to satisfy basic needs. "People aren't concerned about the constitution. They want electricity," Marr says.


  Take a look at some of the data. Oil production of 2.1 million barrels a day remains below the prewar level of 2.9 million barrels, according to Brookings Institution data. Exports of oil, a critical revenue source, currently are 1.3 million a day, a sharp drop from the prewar level of 2.1 million barrels, Brookings says.

Average electricity production in May was 3,700 megawatts, well below the prewar level of 4,400 megawatts, partly because capacity is turned off so frequently. The U.S. and Iraqi officials "need to put more emphasis on capacity and services," stresses Marr. "The garbage has got to be collected."

Meanwhile, the number of Iraqi civilians killed per month has skyrocketed. In May, 2003, it was 25. Two years later, the figure had reached 600, according to Brookings. And the number of insurgent attacks has jumped from an average of 10 a day in May, 2003, to 70 a day last month, Brookings says. Marr is dubious Baghdad can provide answers. "I don't think they're going to be able to turn it around, period," Marr declares.


  That's why she argues for more reliance on the regions, which are more stable than Baghdad and could attract investment. Perhaps with this in mind, Iranians already are holding seminars on how to win contracts in Iraq. A shift to the provinces would increase the political muscle of some tribal sheiks. That's not necessarily bad. They tend to be opponents of religious radicals and have grassroots support. "The tribal leaders could beat the radical Shia," Marr says.

Perhaps most important, the tribal leaders stayed in the country during Hussein's rule. That's a sharp contrast with the Baghdad leadership thus far. The first group of national leaders installed by the U.S. had spent time in the west. After they failed, another group of exiles, this time from Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, came in. But they, too, are viewed as outsiders. It's only a matter of time before the insiders get their day.

To achieve that, Marr suggests that the constitution call for voting for legislative seats by district, as in the U.S. The current system calls for national slates, as in Israel. The key drawback to district voting is that a census is required to know who should be voting in which district. That could mean a delay because of the large number of displaced people, especially in oil-rich Kirkuk.


  Hussein kicked out thousands of Kurds from that city, and they insist on returning. One possible deal to satisfy the Kurds would be to give them political authority in the city but not control of the oil. In exchange for giving up the rights to the older Kirkuk fields, the Kurds could be given access to oil revenues from newer fields in the south -- an attractive swap.

Both a centralized and a decentralized system clearly have kinks to be worked out. The reality is that progress will be slow. "It's going to be a long, hard slog," Marr says. Talk of a pullout starting in 2006 may be just that -- talk. Don't expect GIs to start coming home in large numbers until electric service is dependable.

For that to happen, there has to be a well-oiled, functioning government, either in Baghdad or the provinces. Don't hold your breath.

Crock is senior diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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