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A Closed Circle of Collaborators

By by E.A. Khammas

Occupation Watch Center
11 August, 2003

he recent formation of the Iraqi Governing Council, the first national Iraqi political body since the fall Saddam Hussein’s regime in April, has engendered severe negative reactions across the Iraqi political spectrum.

The International Center of Occupation Watch has carried out extensive interviews in Baghdad with politicians, academics, members of political parties and unaffiliated Iraqi citizens. Virtually all Iraqis interviewed wish the Council success in its tasks, but doubt that success is possible.

Many reasons were given for these doubts. The council lacks democratic legitimacy, both because of the process by which it was created and because of its non-representative nature. Its mandate and authority are sharply limited, with key powers reserved to the Coalition Provisional Authority (i.e., the occupying forces). It was formed without consultation with the technically skilled, scientific, and academic sectors of Iraqi society. Finally, the war and subsequent occupation have created such monumental difficulties that even the ideal governing body might not succeed.

Criticism of the formation process came from many quarters. Prof. Mohammed Jawad Ali, Director of the Center of International Studies in Baghdad University, stressed that the very existence of the occupying authority, which appointed the Council, is illegal since it was imposed by unilateral U.S. (or “coalition”) action, not by any international resolution.

The mysterious and non-transparent way in which the Council was selected also provoked fury within academic and political circles in Iraq.

"Why didn‚t they ask our opinion?" Prof. Wisal al-Azzawi, dean of the College of Political Sciences of Nehrein University, wonders. "What role was there for scientists, technocrats, intellectuals businessmen, unions ? Because of the way it was secretly appointed, the Council appears very much an American product imposed on the Iraqi people ".

Prof. Azzawi suggests that in a situation like that of Iraq, the sensible procedure is to appoint a committee of experts of the occupied country, from the scientific and professional community, to manage the country and fill the power vacuum until the political parties, including the newly-formed ones, have a chance to build a public base, put forward programs, and prepare themselves for a general election. “The democratic process does not happen in a day or two, and should not be connected to a handful of people who collaborated with the occupation.”

A related concern, frequently mentioned, was the open use of ethnic and religious criteria in choosing the member of the council. The 25 members include 13 Shia Arabs, 5 Sunni Arabs, 5 Kurds, one Assyrian and one Turkoman. Although Iraq has been torn apart by ethnic, religious, and political/factional differences and there is a very great need to safeguard both minority rights and adequate representation of the Shia majority, it’s also true that explicit inclusion of quota systems like the one that went into the formation of the Governing Council has always been a standard part of imperial “divide-and-conquer” strategy.

In fact, according to Professor Salman Al-Jumaily of the University of Baghdad’s College of Political Sciences, the Americans have gone one step further in addition to the existing divisions, they have created a new one, between exile and indigenous political groups. According to him, “the imbalanced distribution of representation may well lead to a resurgence of factional consciousness and an entrenching of political differences, which in its turn could easily lead to open factional conflict.”

For example, the Shia, who have a majority of council members, are not fully satisfied because some sub-factions complained of unfair representation. According to al-Jumaily, “two days after the Council was declared, everybody was talking about the composition of the Council, not about the American occupation,” a sign that perhaps the oft-expressed concerns that the governing council is actually a way of undermining unity are valid.

Another essential point of criticism is that the Council members are handpicked and appointed by the occupying authorities, not elected by the Iraqi people.

A political science professor who was part of the process of forming the council, and spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that its members were appointed by the Americans as a reward for aiding the occupation. They immediately reciprocated by declaring the date of the fall of Baghdad (April 9) a national holiday while simultaneously eliminating other national holidays like July 14, the anniversary of the anti-colonialist uprising in 1958. He explained that the long, drawn-out political process, the meetings, the talks with different Iraqi political parties and formations were designed to test how much these groups would cooperate with U.S. policies in Iraq and how closely they would align with long-term U.S. policy goals. According to him, level of cooperation was the “only criterion for inclusion into or exclusion from the council.”

The limited mandate was another main criticism. It has been announced that the Council will hire and fire ministers, put forth a draft constitution, pave the way to the election, approve the 2004 budget, and see to basic services and policing. It is well known that the areas over which the Council has no authority are defense and “national security” issues (including basing of U.S. troops), foreign affairs, and the oil sector.

The same anonymous insider says that Bremer does not take this Council very seriously and doesn’t consider its members to be important officials. In fact, members are afraid that if there is a conflict on some issue, Bremer will invoke the fact that they are not elected and that they do not represent the Iraqi people.

There are also numerous complaints about the individual council members. They are routinely described as inefficient and corrupt. Some members are relatively unknown; others are too well-known to be trusted, because of histories of murder, fraud, torture, connections with Saddam Hussein’s regime, and even connections with Israel. This last point is, of course, a particularly sensitive one in Iraq, as in the rest of the Arab world. A frequent accusation is that the members are collaborators who get their financing from the occupiers; they are often considered to be parasites and even traitors.

Professor Mahdiya Salih, head of the department of political ideologies in Baghdad University, like many Iraqis, accuses the members of pursuing their personal interests and influence. “They only care about being in positions of power. I am ready to accept any Iraqi from any religion, faction, minority, on one condition; that he (she) is just and loyal to this country.” Professor Azzawi thinks the Council members have put themselves in an unfortunate and embarrassing situation – “They should have concentrated on building and developing their parties and programs, instead of branding themselves as collaborators.”


The birth of the Council was difficult and attended by a series of failures. There were numerous meetings and conferences, both inside and outside Iraq. The last ones were in London, Sulaymaniya (northern Iraq) and Nasiriya (southern Iraq). At the last two conferences inside Iraq, parties failed to achieve consensus. In Nasiriya, it was declared that there would be an enlarged Iraqi national conference for all Iraqi political forces in May. The conference was first postponed for another month, then canceled. Instead, Bremer announced a plan for council of members handpicked by him, which would be strictly advisory in nature. This last proviso engendered strong negative reactions, so he changed the name to Governing Council and dropped the explicit claim that it was merely advisory.

During the entire four months of this process, the Americans and the Iraqis involved in this process constantly exchanged accusations. The Americans accused the Iraqis of failure to agree on a unified political discourse , while the Iraqis accused the Americans of not giving them enough authority. They claimed that American political intentions were not clear enough, especially concerning oil.

Some parties refused to be in the Council after attending the preparatory meetings, some rejected the invitation altogether, and others were never invited. Sharif Ali, head of the constitutional monarchist party (and cousin to the last Hashemite ruler of Iraq), walked out at the last minute, largely because of disagreements with Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA. He issued a statement, saying, “We object to the idea of appointing the Council members according to the American selection, to its limited authority. No decision can be issued without Bremer’s approval. This Council does not satisfy the minimal criteria of sovereignty and independence. It was very difficult (for us) to participate in such a council, subject to the American conditions. We hope that it is a constructive step towards national sovereignty and independence, but until now we have been able to find nothing of this.”

Many other political groupings, especially those that sprang up after the war, were not invited to participate in the process. Included among these were the Independent National Gathering, the Workers Communist Party, the Free Iraqi Society, and many Sunni Islamists. They don’t know why they were excluded, nor on what principles the selection was performed. But many believe that even within the overarching framework of representation by ethnic, religious, and factional identity, there was an underlying system of preferences that resulted in a selection process confined to a closed circle of people, the majority of whom represented exile groups rather than indigenous ones.

The lack of transparency and the preponderance of exile groups were the two concerns mentioned be virtually everyone, especially after the first press conference of the catastrophic inaugural session. The Council members appeared confused and contradictory, one of them (Chalabi) thanking the Americans and congratulating himself and the Iraqis for the “liberation,” others vowing to achieve independence as soon as possible. Nothing united members but their hatred of Saddam Hussein. Many members expressed their dissatisfaction with the council. Mahmood Othman (independent) and Abzel Aziz Al-Hakim (The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) both said that the Council did not meet their expectations, but justified it as a step forward in a situation with very limited possibilities because of American intentions to continue the occupation indefinitely. Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Salah Al-Shaikhly of the Iraqi National Accord both complained about the Council’s limited mandate, saying that the body is far less powerful than the members had hoped.

Many Iraqis refer to the Council as a farce. While all the members reject the idea that Bremer has a veto over the Council, it is a popular joke that Bremer will never use this right, because he won’t have to. Terms like “puppet” and “scapegoat” are on everybody s tongue.

The Council’s basic problem is that the Iraqi people have no confidence in it. There is a major credibility gap. At the same time, many Iraqis do cling to the Council at least as something of an indigenous body, in contrast to the foreign occupying forces. Some members do have a modicum of legitimacy, simply because they did not come in on American tanks, like Adnan Pachachi of the Independent Democratic Gathering; others, because they are religious leaders. And the Iraqi people are badly in need of some kind of political structure with some authority, because of the daily difficulties such as the insecurity, lack of services, unemployment, economic dislocations, and more.

What is essential, however, is to allow Iraqis authority over the emerging political process, in reality and not just by fitting individual Iraqis into a structure predetermined by the occupying forces.


1. Create a supreme committee of Iraqi experts and technocrats in every field of life, to govern the country, to supervise the rebuilding process, and simply to fill the power vacuum until all the political parties can establish themselves and prepare for a general election. This committee must have the overriding authority; it should not be subject to the occupying forces.

2. Treat the Iraqi people with the utmost respect, with great attention to their cultural sensitivities. Understand the deep feelings of injury and humiliation springing from their status as an occupied nation and as a people subjected to tremendous, continuing injustice, both from their national government and internationally through the sanctions.

3. Immediately stop all abusive treatment of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers.

4. Instead of exacerbating factional and ethnic conflicts, a process that could potentially lead to civil war, appeal to the “nation-building” and nation-unifying mentality, which has a wide base in Iraq and which has historically been associated with the periods of greatest progress in Iraq.

E.A. Khammas is the co-director of the Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad. Rahul Mahajan is a member of the Occupation Watch advisory board.