Reforming The Majlis -
Iraq's National Assembly

By Terrell E. Arnold

Reports, especially in Middle East media, indicate that the Iraqi people grow more restive every day under Coalition management. The handwriting is also on the wall that decisive actions on several critical issues such as food supplies, housing, jobs, restoration of public services, and assured public safety must occur with a speed and precision that so far has been lacking. The new US civil administrator, former Ambassador L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer, and his team have been in the region only a couple of weeks, but they already must know that what awaits them in terms of restoring and refining Iraq's operating system is a daunting task.
At the same time, there are dark political clouds on the Iraqi horizon as groups maneuver for positions in any new framework of governance. Indicative of the seriousness of that process, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, leader of the main Shiite faction in Iraq and head of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), upon his return from 23 years of exile in Iran, threw down his faction's gauntlet by saying on Sunday, "We refuse imposed government. So how can you expect us to be governed by the Americans?" That assertion from a leading cleric of half the Iraqi people is itself daunting.
A further daunting situation exists with the Kurds in that both main factions, the Barzani and the Talabani, are expelling Arab populations that were put into their territories years ago by Saddam Hussein. Their efforts already have resulted in the displacement of thousands of Arabs who now are a floating population without homes, jobs or means of support. This kind of localized ethnic cleansing or, perhaps better, tribal sorting was a predictable feature of the situation, because Hussein had maintained the living arrangements created to support his regime by force, not by mutual consent.
That Political cacophony introduces an ironic twist as well as an opportunity into a rapidly deteriorating situation. There clearly will not be time to design and install a brand new operating system in Iraq. On all fronts, as much as is possible must be retrieved and restored from what is already there. It is simply not going to be smart -- as early advertising of US/British intentions suggested to throw out Saddam's whole baby with the Baath, now that the party that dominated Iraq for four decades is no longer in control.
For example, following the first Gulf War, Saddam developed a food distribution system that was admired by the United Nations for its effectiveness. Something like it would be easier to restore than to invent, provided that these institutions are directed by new people. Bringing other systems back to where they were before the bombings began also looks like a good way to restore some order of confidence. But as the Shiite Ayatollah's comments suggest, the most telling and probably the most reassuring moves can be made in the political arena.
Here the new team could find some promising shortcuts. The first and perhaps the most impressive shortcut could be restoration of the Majlis, the Iraqi National Assembly. Saddam used, abused, distorted and usurped the legislative functions of the Majlis, since it was founded under the Constitution of 1970: but he did not disband it. It appears that the present membership was elected in 1989, before the Gulf War, and no elections have occurred since. Moreover, while Sunni Arabs actually represent about 30% of the Iraqi population, Saddam contrived to have them hold 53% of the 250 seats in the Majlis, and of course to dominate all Iraqi governmental institutions. In truth, the various Shia elements form the dominant group, amounting to about half the population, while as noted the Sunni Arabs are about 30%, the Kurds (most of whom are Sunnis) are about 15%, while Turkomen, Assyrians and others, including a small number of Jews are about 5%. Those numbers indicate that, even with Saddam's distortions, the Majlis represented a practical political means to provide representation at the national level from all areas of Iraq and from all political, ethnic or religious factions. Creating an alternative to it looks a tougher task than the case requires.
It would be hard to invent an alternative with any standing, particularly given the open hostility of Iraqis, both elites and ordinary people, to an outside government. Iraqis have experimented frequently with representative governments, but the period from the1930s to the late 1950s was plagued by coups and countercoups led largely by military officers who formed the van of Iraqi nationalists. The picture changed with a coup carried out by a group of officers on July 14, 1958 - Iraq's revolution - that expelled the last of the Hashemite monarchs, launched the Republic of Iraq, and installed the group,s leader, a low-born Iraqi, Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim as the country's home grown leader.
Iraq,s revolution changed society by destroying the power of the landowners and advancing the situations of the peasants and urban workers. Being one of them, Qasim gathered great support among the poor and worker groups. He courted Iraq's Communist Party as a counter to the growing Baath Party, a move distrusted by the US and other western powers, but he did little to develop political institutions. He was a loner without any extensive power base, and therefore had few defenses against the rebirth of clan, religious and factional cleavages that had been contained by the monarchy, not always politely. A group of officers led by Saddam Hussein first tried to kill Qasim and then overthrew him in 1963.
Qasim and his followers had started something important for Iraq with the revolution of 1958. A new constitution, launched at that time, made a promise of government for and by Iraqis. Unhappily, at Qasim's overthrow five years later, Iraq was going in several directions at once. Political party activity was growing among the Baath, other nationalist parties and the communists. Increasing urbanization and modernization were breaking down Iraq's traditional social structure. Clan, ethnic and religious hatreds were resurging. Iraq was increasingly involved in foreign affairs. Social pressures more recent to Iraq, class antagonisms, were growing. But the emergence of a popular government was not happening. The Iraqi revolution had failed for want of clear direction, but more critically for lack of interest on the part of nationalist leaders in the welfare of the people.
When he took over from Qasim's successor, Saddam Hussein basically put a lid on it. He suppressed disputes among clan, ethnic and religious groups, focused political life on the Baath, gave increasing control of governance to Sunnis and his Tikriti - Saddam's home region - clansmen. When in 1970 the country adopted a new constitution that called for a National Assembly, the Majlis, it looked again as if real progress would be made. However, elections were not held for the Majlis until 1979, after Saddam Hussein's rise to power. Two further elections were held in 1984 and 1989, but in the meantime the body had been made a captive of the Baath and Saddam.
Because much of the Majlis experience occurred under Saddam, It has been easy for US officials to dismiss the Assembly as a Hussein rubber stamp. That was the official US reaction when the Majlis unanimously rejected UN Resolution 1441 in November 2002, despite Hussein's son's reported recommendation to approve, as well as Saddam's own eventual approval. If Saddam had wanted a Majlis rejection, he had a clear Baath majority that the mere rubber stamp theory would say could be counted on to take care of it. However, by crude count there were 75-80 members of the Majlis who were not Baathists and need not have signed on. The Majlis also contained 30 women. Majlis action on this issue, therefore, deserves closer examination. Was the rejection mere kowtowing to Saddam showmanship, or was it one of the rare opportunities during Saddam's rule for the Majlis to make a clear statement of Iraqi nationalism?
Whatever the case, with a newly seated panel of members in any post Saddam election, the Majlis would have its first opportunity to behave as a freely elected legislative body. In any new Iraqi framework of governance, the Majlis could have several things working for it.
First, it is genuinely Iraqi. Despite Iraq,s rocky experience with representative government the representational framework is still useable. The essential first step of breaking the Baathist stranglehold on it is already in process.
Second, a system exists for selecting representatives and, now that the Saddam cloud has been removed, the system can be made more representative. Although the Majlis electoral system has not been exercised since 1989, it could be re-launched with appropriate alignment of seat allocations to fit current population demographics. The earlier system used 18 geographic electoral districts. Two decades later, maybe that is still a good number, maybe not; it needs to be tested. If the old district system is kept as a basis for elections to federal offices, no nonsense election oversight will be required to assure that the interests of all parties are represented.
Third, there is a strong argument for restoring the Majlis and holding new elections for it without the Saddam overlay. This action would tell the people that after two false starts under Qasim and Hussein, they finally have their own legislative body and a voice in government.
This message can begin to have beneficial effect from the moment new elections are scheduled. Given the current restive state of Iraqis in general, and the likely behind the scenes maneuvering of all elites and sects to gain positions of influence, re-launching the Majlis could be a pre-emptive strike of some force. Its first value is that it would be a decisive step forward. Its second and maybe main value would be that it tells the Iraqis the Coalition really means business on restoring power to the Iraqi people. That in turn would reduce the toxicity of Iraqi mood that presently shows signs of getting out of hand. A fourth value, devoutly to be wished, is that it could commendably shorten the occupation, thereby reducing the foreign policy and money costs and the casualties of the Iraq war.
The process of arriving at a new Iraqi federal system of governance involves a clear sequence of events. Step one is the creation or revitalization of local/community representative organizations. Some working concept of self-selection has to be called into play or established for the leadership of all factions and regions. This is a process that the Coalition can encourage and promote, so long as outside intervention in the candidate selection process is confined to keeping the system from being perverted by extremists. These representatives would then become the participants in a constituent assembly that would be charged with building a genuine federal system of governance.
The situation at this point poses a bit of a quandary for an occupying force that may prefer to impose its will on a conquered people. But the Iraqis have been told they were liberated, not conquered. The first signs of direct foreign intervention in the election process will tell them otherwise. If the Coalition begins, as it has, by promising free and fair elections by the Iraqi people, and then the Coalition intervenes to select the parties and the candidates who may or may not participate, the Iraqi people will see themselves returned to square one, back under a foreign dominated leadership that separates them from their government, as they virtually always have been.
In this regard, decapitating the Baath is likely to fly with the people because it removes the Saddam legacy. However, purging the Baath will tell another story that will be taken as intervention. Eliminating the Baath will not work anyway, because people of that nationalist persuasion will just put a new label on it, maybe change its platform a bit, but they will be back. A scary version of the future has the Baathists driven underground and formed into an insurgency that will do what the Baath has spearheaded before: pull off a coup at the first opportunity. They will be easier to watch and to contain if they are kept in the open, not driven underground, and encouraged to take part in a new government. .
At about this point, and quite possibly sooner, the whole process should be turned over to the United Nations. No member of the Coalition has the credentials for this kind of work, and none has either the detachment or the credibility. UN officers can monitor and intervene to assure integrity of the process, because they have those credentials. The Iraqi and international standing of the results will be far superior to whatever the Coalition might achieve. In any case, it would have to be a long, well-managed and compassionate occupation for the Coalition to acquire the trust and confidence needed to carry out this assignment. The sooner the United Nations can be placed in command of the electoral process the better, and those consultations between the Coalition and the UN should be going on, openly and widely known, right now.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome reader comments or questions at



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