The plan for restoring Iraqi sovereignty on June 30 is threatened by the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Given the continuing violence in Najaf, Fallujah, Baghdad, Karbala and elsewhere, the idea that a government of technocrats can provide even minimal administration for six months, and also organize elections, seems increasingly divorced from reality. Such a government would not have sufficient authority to be effective.
The plan might have worked if the United States had firm control over Iraq, but that is not the case. The issue is no longer how much sovereignty the United States wants to cede to the interim government but whether it can maintain enough security for the interim government to function at all.
Unless Washington finds a mechanism to form a government acceptable to most of the groups that have demonstrated power, the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30 will be a futile gesture. It will not prevent the continuation of violence. It will not convince Iraqis that they are regaining control of the country. It will not curb the ambitions of armed groups and of politicians excluded from the interim government. It will not lead to successful elections at the end of the year.
Without the backing, or at least the acquiescence, of major political forces, the interim government cannot keep the country from sinking into chaos. If that happens, the temptation will grow for the United States to withdraw. The debate on withdrawal has already started, and it will undoubtedly intensify in the weeks to come, as control remains elusive and casualties continue to mount. But leaving behind a failed state would be disastrous. We have learned in Afghanistan how dangerous a failed state can be.
Iraq needs an interim government that has the support of major political forces, including, make no mistake, the likes of the Fallujah insurgents and the firebrand Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr. If the idea of giving even the bad guys a voice in the formation of an interim government seems preposterous, remember, this is precisely what the loya jirga did in Afghanistan.
An interim government enjoying broad acceptance could be formed by reversing the process now envisaged by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and the Coalition Provisional Authority. The current plan calls for formation of an interim government by the United Nations and the United States, followed by the convocation of a national conference, which could only rubber-stamp a done deal. The plan is dictated by President Bush's determination to have a government in place by June 30, but it makes little sense politically. To give some legitimacy to the interim government, the national conference needs to come first, and to approve the government.
It would be possible to hold the national conference before the formation of a government and still meet the June 30 deadline. Sovereignty could be transferred not to the interim government but to the national conference, which would then set up the interim government. There is, of course, no precedent for transfer of sovereignty to a national conference, but there are examples of national conferences declaring themselves sovereign, deposing the incumbent government, setting up an interim one, and proceeding to organize elections. The best-known of these cases, in Benin in 1990, led to one of the most successful democratic transitions in Africa.
There are, to be sure, dangers in transferring sovereignty to a national conference that includes groups hostile to the United States -- including the possibility that the conference would ask U.S. troops to leave the country, or would set up a radical government. But a broad-based national conference is not likely to take extreme positions, because the participants would have to reach a compromise among themselves. Sadr can cause more damage as an insurgent defying the United States from Najaf than as the head of one of many organizations represented at a national conference and competing with other Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups.
Even if there is some risk involved, a sovereign national conference is the only means of setting up an interim government with a chance of surviving for six months and leading the country to elections. Without the backing of the groups that have the power to derail elections, an interim government cannot function. Furthermore, a national conference would test the willingness of the Iraqis to compromise and reach an agreement. Without such willingness, no amount of U.S. or U.N. involvement can turn Iraq into a stable country, let alone a democratic one. If that is the case, it is better to find out sooner rather than later, before more lives are lost in a futile endeavor.
The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-director of its Democracy and Rule of Law Project.