Bringing democracy to Iraq was one of the key premises on which the United States-led coalition invaded the country on March 20 last year. Operation Iraqi Freedom essentially had four goals: bringing about regime change, finding the weapons of mass destruction, overcoming terrorism and bringing democracy to Iraq. It achieved the first objective, never managed the second, has become bogged down in the third and is struggling with the fourth.
As the June 30 deadline for a transfer of power approaches, both the US and the United Nations remain committed to the ideal of a democratic transition in Iraq. Yet both appear to have stumbled at the very first hurdle in this process - the nomination of an interim president. The coalition-appointed Governing Council of Iraq found itself at loggerheads with the US and the UN over who should be selected for the post. The US and UN apparently wanted the presidency to go to 81-year-old council member Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni Muslim who served as the country's foreign minister in the 1960s and as ambassador to the UN. He lived in exile for three decades and is favoured because of a moderate, pro-Western outlook. But a majority on the Governing Council favoured Ghazi al-Yawar, 45, also a Sunni and currently the council's president. The tribal sheikh is a US-educated engineer and a moderate, but regarded by the council as more independent and less beholden to the US than Mr Pachachi. The council itself, having been installed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, is hardly a democratic institution. Its mandate, in fact, derives from the coalition, not the Iraqi people. But it is for the time being the most broadly representative Iraqi body and its preferences should be heard. Late yesterday Mr Pachachi was offered the job and turned it down. Sheikh Yawar was then immediately named as president, leading to some speculation that this was the US game plan all along.
The US and the UN say they are committed to building a real democracy in Iraq. In the absence of a clear explanation of their initial refusal to accept the Governing Council's preferred candidate, the manoeuvring could be enough to arouse deep suspicion on the part of Iraqis as to just how genuine are those sentiments. It is a strange approach indeed to building a democracy that will reflect the wishes and aspirations of the Iraqi people, let alone one that will serve as an example to other countries in the Middle East. The acceptance of Sheikh Yawar as president is a sensible outcome. If the new Iraqi government is to enjoy legitimacy, let alone survive in a hostile and suspicious environment, it must ultimately be acceptable to the Iraqi people. Had Sheikh Yawar been rejected, it would not have been a step towards democracy, but possibly in another direction altogether.