The United Nations Security Council, with support from the British and American delegations, is poised to cut the Iraqi parliament out of one of the most significant decisions the young government will make: when foreign troops will depart. It’s an ugly and unconstitutional move, designed solely to avoid asking an Iraqi legislature for a blank check for an endless military occupation that it’s in no mood to give, and it will make a mockery of Iraq’s nascent democracy (which needs all the legitimacy it can get).
While the Bush administration frequently invokes sunny visions of spreading democracy and "freedom" around the world, the fact remains that democracy is incompatible with its goals in Iraq. The fact remains that the biggest headache supporters of the occupation of Iraq have to deal with is the fact of the occupation itself. As far back as the middle of 2004, more than nine out of 10 Iraqis said the U.S.-led forces were "occupiers," and only 2 percent called them "liberators." Things have only gone downhill since then, and any government that represents the will of the Iraqi people would have no choice but to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. This fact poses an enormous problem, as the great triumph of the Bush administration and its supporters has been in their ability to convince a much of the Americans population that Iraqi interests and Washington’s interests are in harmony, even when they’re diametrically opposed.
Crucial to this fiction is a U.N. mandate that confers legal cover on the so-called "multinational" forces in Iraq. The mandate is now coming up for renewal, and a majority of Iraqi legislators oppose the its renewal unless conditions are placed on it, conditions that may include a demand for a timetable for the departure of American troops.
The process of renewing the mandate is highlighting the political rift that’s divided the country and fueled most of the violence that’s plagued the new state. That’s the rift between nationalists — those Iraqis who, like most of their countrymen, oppose the presence of foreign troops on the ground, the wholesale privatization of Iraq’s natural resources and the division of their country into ethnic and sectarian fiefdoms, and Iraqi separatists who at least tolerate the occupation — if not support it — and favor a loose sectarian/ethnic-based federation of semiautonomous states held together by a minimal central government in Baghdad.
In the United States, the commercial media has largely ignored this story, focusing almost exclusively on sectarian violence and doing a poor job giving their readers and viewers a sense of what’s driving Iraq’s political crisis. An understanding of the tensions between nationalists and separatists is necessary to appreciate the import of the parliament being cut out of the legislative process and the degree to which doing so hurts the prospect of real political reconciliation among Iraq’s many political factions. (We’ve discussed this dynamic in greater detail in an earlier article.)
The key ingredient to understand is this: The Iraqi executive branch — the cabinet and the presidency — are completely controlled by separatists (including Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and secular politicians). But the parliament is controlled by nationalists — nationalists from every major ethnic and sectarian group in the country — who enjoy a small but crucially important majority in the only elected body in the Iraqi government.
In 2006, Maliki’s office requested the renewal of the U.N. mandate without consulting the legislature, a process that many lawmakers maintained was a violation of Iraqi law. The problem was that Maliki didn’t have the authority to make the request under the Iraqi constitution. Article 58, Section 4 says that the Council of Representatives (the parliament) has to ratify "international treaties and agreements" negotiated by the Council of Ministers (the cabinet). Specifically, it reads: "A law shall regulate the ratification of international treaties and agreements by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Council of Representatives."
Prime Minister Maliki had claimed that the constitution didn’t refer to the U.N. mandate. A senior Iraqi lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the assertion: "If we are asked to approve a trade agreement concerning olive oil, should we not have the right to pass on an agreement concerning the stationing of foreign military forces in our national soil?"
In June, we reported that the parliament had passed a binding resolution that would force Maliki to go to the parliament and give Iraqi lawmakers an opportunity to block the extension of the mandate. It was signed by the majority of the 275-seat legislature, then sent to the president. According to the Iraqi constitution, the president has 15 days to veto it by sending back; otherwise it automatically becomes a ratified law. The 15 days passed without a veto, so, according to the terms off the constitution, the Iraqi parliament’s resolution became a law in mid-June 2007.
Something happened, however, between the passage of that law and the latest report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. According to Moon’s latest report to the Security Council (PDF), dated Oct. 15, the law that had been passed by the duly elected legislature of Iraq became nothing more than a "nonbinding resolution":
"The Council of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution on 5 June obligating the cabinet to request parliament’s approval on future extensions of the mandate governing the multinational force in Iraq and to include a timetable for the departure of the force from Iraq."
One might have believed that the disconnect was a simple mistake, if not for the fact that members of the Iraqi parliament, still fuming over being cut out of the process the year before, sent a letter to the U.N.’s special envoy for Iraq back in April clarifying the situation in very clear terms. According to an English translation provide by the Global Policy Forum, it says: "The Iraqi Cabinet has unilaterally requested a renewal of the U.N. mandate keeping the occupation troops (MNF) in Iraq" despite the fact that "such a request issued by the Iraqi cabinet without the Iraqi parliament’s approval is unconstitutional." It continues: "The Iraqi parliament, as the elected representatives of the Iraqi people, has the exclusive right to approve and ratify international treaties and agreements, including those signed with the United Nations Security Council."
According to sources within the Iraqi delegation to the United Nations, the letter, signed by 144 MPs –more than half of Iraq’s legislators — was received in good order by the special envoy, Ashraf Qazi, but never distributed to the Security Council members, as is required under the U.N. resolution that governs the mandate. The parliament, and indeed the majority of the Iraqi population, had been cleanly excised from the legislative process.
The important thing to understand is that the run-around goes beyond the issue of the mandate itself. Iraq is not in the midst of an incomprehensible religious war over some obscure theological differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims but is deeply and profoundly divided over fundamental questions about the future of the country. In cutting the nationalist majority in the parliament out of the process of governing, the Maliki administration, Bush administration and, apparently, the U.N. secretary-general are making political reconciliation much more difficult. History has offered the lesson time and time again: Deny people the right to participate in deciding their own destiny in a peaceful political process, and they’ll try to do so with guns and bombs. The United Nations, like the administration and its supporters, and like Sen. Joe Biden and those who favor his plan for partitioning the country, is taking sides in a political battle that should be exclusively for Iraqis to decide.
If there were some similarities between the current Iraqi-Iraqi conflict and the U.S. civil war it is in having one side that wants to keep the country united, and another side planning to secede. All of the foreign forces that are intervening in Iraq’s affairs — whether led by the United States, Iran or Al-Qaeda — are on the side of a minority of Iraqis who want to secede against the majority’s will.
This U.N. mandate issue is not occurring in a vacuum. When it comes to the nascent Iraqi government, supporters of the occupation have long had their cake and eaten it too. On the one hand, they deny that the U.S.-led military force is an occupying army at all, maintaining that all those foreign troops are there at the "request" of the Iraqi government. That’s an important legal nicety — occupying forces have a host of responsibilities under international law and acknowledging the reality of the occupation would result in more legal responsibilities for the administration to ignore. At the same time, when the only people who all those purple-fingered Iraqi voters actually elected to office try to attach some conditions to the U.N. mandate, demand a timetable for withdrawal or come out against privatizing Iraq’s natural resources, and then somehow magically disappear, their hopes and aspirations are discarded as if they never existed.
It’s time to force the issue: The Iraqi parliament, the only body elected by the Iraqi people, wants some say over the continuing presence of foreign troops on its soil, and a majority of its lawmakers, like a majority of both Americans and Iraqis, wants a timetable for ending the occupation.