International Papers

Iraq’s American Puppet Masters?

Most Arabic newspapers led on news that an interim governing council has been formed in Iraq, the first real sign that the Anglo-American occupation authorities have backtracked from imposing direct rule on the Iraqis for an indefinite period of time. Still, some papers stressed that the United States would maintain a strong influence over the council.

The Lebanese independent daily Al-Nahar caught the mood in the headline, “A Sectarian-Tribal Governing Council for Iraq, America Retains Veto Power.” Another Beirut paper, Al-Safir, which has been critical of the occupation of Iraq, was less specific, pointing out: “The Iraqi Governing Council Is Born With Unclear Prerogatives.” In fact, U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer retains the authority to overrule the council’s decisions, though he will probably hesitate to overdo this for fear of undermining its credibility. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat was all business, putting a photograph of the 25-member council on its front page next to the headline, “The Governing Council Decides Its Functions: A Government, a Constitution, Greater Security, Reviving the Economy, and Revitalizing the State.” The paper also slipped in a picture of grinning U.S. soldiers taking a mug shot of a visibly humiliated captured Iraqi, which many readers would react to with anger.

The new government reflects a wide range of Iraqi religious, ethnic, and tribal groups—London’s Guardian described it as “probably the most representative government in Iraqi history.” Still, there are doubts as to whether such a team can work together efficiently given the different aims of its members. It was fear of such divisions that led Bremer to initially delay formation of a government. Among the members are two Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani; former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi; Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi; Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq official Abdel Aziz al-Hakim; and a Shiite cleric formerly based in London, Muhammad Bahr Al-Ouloum. Few Web sites of the embryonic postwar Iraqi press had time to post the news item before deadline. (Iraqi newspaper links can be found here.) However, the London-based daily Al-Zaman (which also publishes an Iraq edition), run by a former Saddam press secretary who fled to Britain, suggested devolution of power might be one way to resolve the competing interests of the members. It noted that the new team had made a “commitment to a federal system.” The council also appointed individuals to administrative posts, canceled Baath holidays, and declared that Saddam had been relegated to the “trash bin of history.”

Will the new government be able to end attacks on U.S. forces? Many Arabic papers published the Sunday comment by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressing doubts: “I’m afraid we’re going to have to expect [the attacks] to go on, and there’s even speculation that during the month of July … we could see an increase in the number of attacks.” Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star put the quote on its front page, adding that U.S. troops had killed four people in the latest of a series of colorfully named military operations, this one labeled “Operation Ivy Serpent.” The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat added a twist by reporting that the Dubai-based Al-Arabia satellite station had broadcast a tape allegedly sent by al-Qaida in which the group was said to have announced that “it, not followers of Saddam Hussein, was behind the attacks against American forces in Iraq and threatened to soon mount an attack that would ‘break America’s back.’ ” Like Al-Hayat, Al-Sharq al-Awsat published a front-page photograph of hooded Iraqi prisoners abducted by the Americans.

Writing in last week’s English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, the radical writer and translator Ammiel Alcalay, who teaches in New York, had no doubt that the Anglo-American coalition’s “very precise actions and inactions” during and after the Iraq war represented “a culture war, a clash of civilizations.” In a bewildering article titled “Politics and Imagination: After the Fall of Baghdad,” Alcalay blamed the United States for obliterating all alternative interpretations of the modern world that clashed with its own. The problem is that to condemn the Bush administration in Iraq, he had to square an intellectual circle by simultaneously condemning Saddam, arguing: “Iraq has been subjected to severe humiliation, vanquished by the former ally of their most bitter oppressor, asked to feel liberated by those who starved and suffocated them through a decade of the most draconian sanctions ever devised.” It isn’t clear the Iraqi people and their governing council would see it that way.