Jeremy Greenstock: Mediating from New York to Baghdad

20 February 2004
Few diplomats in Baghdad have more experience to comment on the country's future than the UK's special envoy in Iraq, Jeremy Greenstock. Prior to the invasion, the former UK ambassador to the UN in New York fought hard to build a platform of international consensus for the war. Now he is at the centre of efforts to hand power back to Iraqis

What effect is the ongoing violence having on the process of reconstruction and the handover of power to a sovereign Iraqi authority?

We need to continue addressing and counter-attacking the terrorist movements and remnants of insurgency from Saddam loyalists. Addressing the threat of security against Iraqis under our authority is obviously an extremely important plank of policy. Security is evolving as the terrorists coming in from abroad, such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Ansar al-Islam, adjust their tactics to the coalition's strategy against them. They remain dangerous and are capable of launching large bomb attacks, but the strategic effect against a large coalition presence on the ground is not particularly great. It looks like a disturbed situation but when the bombings occur, although its very distressing when a large number of Iraqis are killed, it has not affected the determination of the coalition or of Iraqis to continue to forge a new country. But I am afraid the disturbances we have seen over the past few months are not going to stop in short order.

What role will the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) take after the transition of power to an Iraqi government on 30 June? Will it remain in some form to oversee continued reconstruction efforts?

The CPA fades away and ceases to exist when a new Iraqi government takes over sovereign power. The authority's individual members set their own bilateral arrangements with the new Iraqi state. Those bilateral entities will be embassies in effect, or missions, and they will co-ordinate very closely together having worked very closely under the CPA. But their political format will be bilateral between each country and the Iraqi state. The international co-ordination of the arrangements will be a co-ordination of bilateral activity. Ambassador Paul Bremer knows he will be looking for a new job as he cannot stay as administrator at that point. A different American appointee will take charge of the embassy in order to signal the change in the two eras.

Is there not a danger that the transition to democratic government and open elections is being rushed?

People should understand what the dates mean. The 15 November agreement, which is the last clear expression of policy upon the timescale, does not rush the process along: it extends the period for elections to a much longer period than was previously conceived. Before then there was talk, even among ourselves, for elections during 2004 and the handover of sovereignty but that would come before the writing of a new permanent constitution, which needs time and preparation. So we have put all this into the programme for 2005 and extended the timeline so that it is less rushed. People don't seem to have taken this theme on board.

The agreement calls for a permanent constitution to be written by a convention that is elected in March 2005. It then takes several months to produce that constitution and on the basis of that constitutional agreement there will be elections towards the end of 2005, giving the entire process an extra year to crystallise. There are two reasons why this is wise. First, the sooner Iraqis take on responsibility for their own administration the sooner they will start taking responsible decisions as opposed to arguing among themselves. Second, the fact that the occupation itself is controversial does excite violence against it and we expect the security situation to be resolved more quickly after the occupation has ended. That does not mean that assistance will not continue, both in the security and reconstruction areas. With a sovereign Iraq will come a much broader UN and international role and assistance coming from many countries that have not wanted to help Iraq through the occupation period.

Is the CPA concerned about the possible formation of a Shia-led government, under the guidance of religious leaders such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which could push Iraq towards a theocratic Iranian model of government and thus further incite Sunni minorities?

Polls taken show very strong popular support for Iraq being a country of the Islamic religion and a religious country but also a very strong feeling that religion and political culture should not be mixed. People inside Iraq do not fear that the majority will go for a theocracy or an Iranian-type government. Yes, there is a lot of discussion whether the Shia will dominate a government and we are trying to explain to political groups in Iraq that under the democratic institutions being fostered any government will have to work for all communities in Iraq. We are hoping the constitution, when it is written next year, will express that firmly. Iraqis will have to get that right but from the CPA point of view it does not keep us awake at night.

Could history be repeating itself in Iraq? How can the CPA guarantee that the demise of Baathism will not give rise to a strong nationalistic resurgence that once again could pose a threat to regional stability?

The return of Baathism itself is extremely unlikely because the Baath party is so unpopular among Iraqis and if they are allowed expression of views then the Baath party is not going to come back. It is also a perfectly legitimate question to ask whether Iraqis can gather themselves together to form a country that can hold together under democratic institutions. If it does then democracy itself will ensure that this kind of autocratic and militaristic rule will not return to the country. But it does beg the question whether those kinds of democratic institutions can be developed with the strength to unite Iraq and rule it. Iraqis expect a reasonably firm hand at the centre - they want the country to be stable and under control and will accept a certain amount of control as long as it is with the consent of the people - civilian and not military - and not threatening to their neighbours.

In retrospect, is there anything that could have been done differently with regards to the occupation and reconstruction?

I have no regrets but when you look at the component parts of the balance then obviously there are some things that could have been done differently. The majority of what has happened has been in the right direction and I hope that in the future we are seen as having done a service to Iraq in getting rid of the previous regime and giving the country an opportunity to forge something different. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to get an international consensus to persuade Saddam to step down peacefully without military force needed. I tried to the bitter end in March 2003 in New York to make sure we didn't have to use military force, but unfortunately we had to because Saddam's defiance of UN resolutions was too absolute.

As far as the post-conflict situation is concerned, everybody recognises that the coalition made a false start with its early administration. If there had been a Bremer-type momentum from April onwards then we could have achieved a lot earlier and I think this time was wasted and time pays in this environment. Finally, I would have liked to see an earlier and stronger approach to reconciliation and the delivery of justice in the Iraqi system after the end of the conflict. We have been slow to deliver this message and to give the Iraqis organised around not only the components of reconciliation policy, not least with the Sunni community, but also a mechanism of a tribunal and trial system for those that offended under the previous regime and committed gross abuses of humanitarian and international law.

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