In Iraq, Bush Pushed For Deadline Democracy

By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Whenever he was asked in public last winter about the prospect of delaying Iraq's first election since the fall of Saddam Hussein, President Bush flatly dismissed it. His administration, he insisted, was "very firm" on going forward.

But inside the White House, Bush's team was anything but firm. A powerful debate was raging, officials now acknowledge, among the president's top advisers over postponing the Jan. 30 interim election in hopes of first tamping down the flaring insurgency and bringing disaffected factions to the table.

"There was a good debate in front of the president," recalled national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "It was a close question and if it had gone to consensus, I don't know how it would have come out."

Ultimately, it did not go to a consensus decision but to Bush, who opted to stick with the election, a decision with distinct costs and benefits as the United States labored to build a democratic government in Iraq from the ground up. When U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer transferred sovereignty to Iraqi authorities in June 2004, he left behind a script with hard-and-fast deadlines for drafting a constitution and forming a government, a script that culminates Thursday with another election for a permanent parliament.

The story of the 18-month process that unfolded after Bremer left Baghdad was one of steadfast fidelity to the script, as well as a costly period of U.S. inattention and endless frustrations with squabbling Iraqi leaders, according to a wide array of Bush advisers, Iraqi politicians and others involved in the effort. While Bush refuses to set a timetable for military withdrawal, he has stuck doggedly to the Bremer political timetable despite qualms of his staff, relentless violence on the ground and disaffection of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs.

Bush's deadline democracy managed to propel the process forward and appears on the verge of creating a new government with legitimacy earned at the ballot box. His approach resulted in a constitution often described as more democratic than any in the Arab world. Yet by pushing forward without Sunni acceptance, the Bush team failed to produce the national accord it sought among Iraq's three main groups, leaving a schism that could loom beyond Thursday's election. And the Sunni-powered insurgency that was supposed to be marginalized by an inclusive democracy remains as lethal as ever.

"The key for a long time in Iraq to stabilization . . . has been to pull in significant elements of Sunnis near the insurgency into the political process," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University scholar who for a short time advised U.S. authorities in Iraq, only to become a scathing critic. The press to meet the Bremer deadlines, starting in January, he said, only fueled the militants. "Much of the violence after that was entrenched or reinforced by the elections when the Sunnis were pressed to the margins."

In private, Bush aides agree there were tradeoffs but found no better alternatives, and they take heart from signs that Sunnis who boycotted the January election plan to participate this week. "Perfect wasn't on offer," a senior administration official said. "It's not that anyone thought it was a great idea, but that was the path we were on. No one had the confidence to think of moving along another path. The biggest fear was that things would get slowed down."

In the end, according to participants, the political process has both succeeded and failed. It produced elections and soon a permanent government, but did not end the war, at least not yet. "I believed -- and I said from the podium -- that as Iraqis became more politically empowered, the insurgency would become politically weakened," said Dan Senor, a top Bremer adviser. "That hasn't happened. The political process has been resilient -- and so has the insurgency."

Reality Steps In

The Bremer script was never the administration's first choice. Instead, it was a compromise forced by powerful political realities, especially by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of the majority Shiites who after years of oppression under Hussein's Sunni leadership wanted their own government. It laid out a quick succession of goals starting with the January interim election, followed by a draft constitution in August, a referendum to approve it in October and now this week's vote.

The idea behind it was to put the Iraqis in the lead. And so as soon as Bremer turned over sovereignty in June 2004, the Bush administration made a pivotal decision to take a back seat -- literally.

As the one-man ruler of Iraq, Bremer had alienated many Iraqis with what they saw as an imperial style, and the new U.S. ambassador was determined to take a different tack. Iraqi officials were startled when John D. Negroponte sat in a chair against the wall during meetings. He was the anti-Bremer.

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