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Iraq's 'Sovereignty' Mirage

By Nat Parry
May 18, 2004

The Bush administration's plan to turn over "sovereignty" to the Iraqis on June 30 is starting to look like just the latest scheme to buy time from American voters for a policy that is mired in quicksand with no where to go but down.

Since George W. Bush launched the Iraq War on March 19, 2003, there have been other markers that stirred hope that a victorious end was near: the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, Bush's flight-suit landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln under the "Mission Accomplished" banner, the killing of Hussein's two sons, the capturing of Hussein himself and the signing of the U.S.-brokered Iraqi constitution. All those hopes have faded like a desert mirage.

Now, faced with U.S. troop deaths approaching 800 and a scandal over Iraqi prisoner abuse, the administration has come to rely on the June 30 "transfer of power" as the latest way to convince the American people that it was all worth while and there is a still a way out of the mess. But what Washington has in mind for Iraq after June 30 doesn't resemble any traditional definition of "sovereignty," and even key administration officials are disagreeing over such basic questions as whether this "sovereign" government can order foreign troops to leave its territory.

Trying to square that circle, Secretary of State Colin Powell now says that theoretically the new Iraqi government can demand that foreign troops leave, but he's sure that the new government officials won't. They are being picked through consultations between the Bush administration and the United Nations, represented by its emissary Lakdhar Brahimi.

Old Favorites

In recent weeks, Washington has been lobbying for inclusion of some favorites from the outgoing Iraqi Governing Council to direct the political side of the interim government, including Adnan Pachachi, the former Iraqi foreign minister. "The government is going to have both technocrats and people of political stature," a senior administration official told the New York Times. "It's important to have both sides in the government." [NYT, May 9, 2004]

Given the expected shape of the new entity and the dicey security situation, Powell said he is confident that U.S. forces will stay, since they will be in charge of protecting the interim government, which will continue to face threats from Iraqi insurgents. Powell said he was "absolutely losing no sleep thinking that they might ask us to leave." The Bush administration also is resisting European demands that the Iraqis have at least a few meaningful powers of self-government, such as the right for Iraqi troops to refuse American orders to attack other Iraqis. Not needed, the Bush administration says. [NYT, May 15, 2004]

Washington, however, is insisting that the interim Iraqi government continue to extend broad freedoms to U.S. troops operating in Iraq, including immunity from Iraqi law and the right to undertake military operations as U.S. commanders deem necessary. There may be "consultation" with the Iraqi government about U.S. military attacks, administration officials say, but U.S. troops will stay under U.S. command as will Iraqi government troops.

It's not even clear that the "sovereign" Iraqi government will have control over key parts of the criminal justice system. "I have asked many times who will be in charge of Abu Ghraib prison after Iraq becomes a sovereign country," one European diplomat told the Times. "I cannot get any answers. I can't get answers to a lot of these questions." [NYT, May 17, 2004]

Defining 'Sovereignty'

At least for the near future, Iraqis will have very little of what has historically been considered "sovereignty," even though the U.S. press corps continues to report routinely that "sovereignty" will be handed over on June 30.

To political thinkers from Aristotle to Hobbes, "sovereignty" has been defined as possessing "supreme power" over a territory "free from external control." This concept was applied to kings and other national rulers, though in the age of modern nation states, democrats such as Thomas Jefferson also associated sovereignty with the consent of naturally free and equal individuals.

In international law, dating back to the peace treaties of Westphalia of 1648, "sovereignty" also marked the formal equality of states and the non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other recognized states. The classical concept of "sovereignty" envisions a world order in which all states exercise supreme authority over all subjects within their territories and recognize no worldly authority superior to themselves.

The word expresses “the idea that there is a final and absolute authority in the political community,” according to F.H. Hinsley in his scholarly study, Sovereignty. Properly defined, Hinsley says, it is “a notion that can only arise when rule is both comprehensive, in the sense that it governs a society, and restricted, in the sense that it is anchored to a society.”

As envisioned by the Bush administration, however, the new "sovereign" Iraqi entity won't have supremacy over much and will be extensively dominated by external control.

If the administration gets its way, the "sovereign" Iraqi government will resemble a restructured Iraqi Governing Council, which was hand-picked by the U.S. occupation authority. The administration wants the new government divided in two, one political (including former members of the Iraqi Governing Council) and the other dealing with technical government matters (picked by U.N. emissary Brahimi). This interim government would serve as a caretaker regime and organize some form of elections, supposedly in January 2005.

In the meantime, the real power – backed up by the presence of about 135,000 U.S. troops – would remain in American hands. The new system will stay in place until the security situation in Iraq has improved enough to conduct elections, an eventuality that also may recede into the future if the anti-American insurgency takes deeper root in the society. As part of the ceremonial transfer of "sovereignty," the new U.S. ambassador, John Negroponte, will replace American proconsul Paul Bremer as the man behind the curtain pulling the strings.

Limited Powers

Though the word "sovereignty" is still bandied about by the U.S. news media in reference to June 30, senior U.S. officials have offered a more limited view in congressional testimony, explaining that the "sovereignty" will be largely symbolic. Marc Grossman, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said the change will put a “very important Iraqi face” on the governance of the country.

But on questions of national security, the new government will have little influence. The U.S. plans to maintain its military presence, with both U.S. forces and Iraqi security forces under full U.S. command. U.S. soldiers also will still have immunity from Iraqi law, with U.S. soldiers and private contractors remaining under U.S. legal jurisdiction. Plus, U.S. officials have indicated that if Iraq tries to pursue policies not to the liking of Washington, such as forging closer ties with Iran, those initiatives could be blocked. “That is why we want to have an American ambassador in Iraq,” Grossman said.

European leaders have pressed the Bush administration to back away from trying to maintain behind-the-scenes control after June 30. "What we need is for the Americans and the occupation forces to understand and accept this real break on July 1 – and the break will be confirmed with the elections in January," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told a news conference on May 14.

Barnier said the creation of the Iraqi interim government must really mean that the U.S. occupation is ending. "We have to make sure that this government has all the levers of sovereignty and control," Barnier said. "The Iraqi government has to be in a position to manage its affairs, to handle the economy, the justice, manage its natural resources, manage the internal security forces – at least the law enforcement officials. And also, it has to have a say in the use of multilateral force that will be in Iraq from July until January." [AP, May 14, 2004]

Quasi-Sovereignty

As authorization for keeping Iraq in a quasi-sovereign state, U.S. officials cite a U.N. Security Council resolution that they say grants the U.S. a mandate to stay in Iraq until “the completion of the political process.” The administration says that means the U.S. presence will continue until Iraq holds elections and a permanent government is seated. When those events can actually happen are less and less certain, however, given the fighting in many cities, including the capital of Baghdad.

Over the past year, when facing demands from Iraqis for quick elections, the Bush administration has cited lack of security as the main reason for putting them off. But it appears that the security situation is worsening, not improving. There's also no guarantee that putting a new – or slightly spruced-up – “Iraqi face” on the occupation will quell the resistance.

The administration's interpretation of its authority is also under question. Resolution 1511, passed in October 2003, does authorize a “multinational force under unified command to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq.” The main thrust of the resolution, however, is to reaffirm the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq.

Its opening passage reaffirms “the right of the Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future and control their own natural resources.” The resolution reiterates the U.N. Security Council’s “resolve that the day when Iraqis govern themselves must come quickly” and calls upon the international community to “forward this process expeditiously.”

In justifying U.S. authority, the Pentagon and State Department also point to the interim constitution adopted by the U.S.-selected Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority´s Order 17. But the documents were authored either by the Bush administration or its appointees on the Iraqi Governing Council.

Order 17 provides immunity from Iraqi laws for U.S. forces and officials as well as contractors and their employees. It is unclear what the legal status of this order will be after the CPA is dissolved and absorbed into the U.S. Embassy on July 1. The U.S. might find it necessary to negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement with the interim government.

Status-of-forces agreements are used wherever the U.S. military maintains a presence in a country and typically place U.S. forces above the laws of the host country. So, if American soldiers commit a crime, they cannot be tried in the courts of the host country, but, rather, are dealt with (or not dealt with) by the U.S. military.

Korean Example

South Korea provides a useful example of how these agreements can lead to popular discontent. The U.S. has maintained a military presence in South Korea for over 50 years, supposedly to defend against possible attacks from North Korea. While many South Koreans appreciate the protection, many others want national reunification and see the U.S. presence as the chief obstacle to that end.

Tensions over the U.S. occupation boiled over in November 2002, when two 13-year-old girls were crushed to death by an American tank as they were walking to a birthday party. Under the status-of-forces agreement, the U.S. soldiers responsible were not tried by Korean courts and were instead brought before a U.S. military tribunal, which cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Protests broke out across South Korea, with hundreds of thousands of Koreans demonstrating in December 2002 demanding that the soldiers be turned over to Korean authorities and be tried in Korean courts. Some protesters demanded that the 37,000 American troops in South Korea leave, while other critics called for an end to the status-of-forces agreement.

Considering that many Iraqis have resisted the U.S. occupation, it is questionable whether they will accept a similar status-of-forces agreement if they have a free choice through elections.

A recent poll taken by U.S. authorities in Iraq showed growing opposition to the occupation. Even before the abuse of prisoners was disclosed at Abu Ghraib prison, 82 percent of the Iraqis polled said they disapproved of the U.S. military and its allies in Iraq. The poll also found broad support in some cities for insurgent Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, the target of a U.S. military offensive seeking to kill or capture him. In Baghdad, 45 percent of those questioned backed him as did 67 percent in the southern city of Basra, the poll showed.  [Washington Post, May 13, 2004]

Central American Precedent

Some critics of Bush’s Iraq policy have suggested that the choice of Negroponte as ambassador may foreshadow even more aggressive tactics against Iraqi insurgents.

As ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, Negroponte was accused of transforming Honduras into a base for anti-leftist paramilitary operations throughout Central America. He presided over a surge in death squad operations against Honduran dissidents and leftists in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Negroponte also was accused of concealing information about these secret activities from the U.S. Congress, including information about Battalion 316, which was organized, trained and financed by the CIA. The battalion specialized in torture using “shock and suffocation devices in interrogations,” according to an investigation by the Baltimore Sun in 1995. Prisoners were often “kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves,” the newspaper reported.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the U.S. embassy was aware of numerous kidnappings of leftists and that Negroponte played an active role in whitewashing human rights abuses. But when he was testifying to the Senate prior to his confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2001, Negroponte said, “I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras.”

Some Iraq War critics fear Negroponte may oversee a paramilitary operation in Iraq similar to the one that spread terror across Central America, while concealing the reality from the American people. Congress was flooded with phone calls urging senators to reject his nomination. But the Senate approved Negroponte's nomination in a 95-3 vote, with two abstentions. [For more details on how U.S. policy in Central America may serve as a model for Iraq, see Consortiumnews.com's "Iraq: Quicksand & Blood."]

Abused Definitions

As the June 30 date approaches, "sovereignty" is quickly joining "democracy" as one of the most abused words in Washington's official lexicon. While American officials insist that the transfer of at least "limited sovereignty" to Iraq is real, the continuing U.S. military occupation is unlikely to be missed by the Iraqi people and others around the world.

In Iraq, the promises of "sovereignty" and "democracy" are looking more and more like the other Iraq War distortions, such as assurances that large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction would be found and that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda terrorists.

There is also the question of hypocrisy: the contrast between the "sovereignty" that Washington applies to other countries and what it demands for itself. For instance, the Bush administration renounced President Bill Clinton’s signature to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, citing threats to American sovereignty if the court had jurisdiction over U.S. troops serving abroad. The U.S. also has gone beyond simple non-cooperation with the court and demanded bilateral status-of-forces agreements with nations where Americans are stationed to ensure that U.S. soldiers never fall under the court's jurisdiction.

The U.S. even cites its “sovereignty” when using unilateral military force in international affairs. The Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 – a violation of Iraq's sovereignty – by arguing that it was applying the U.S. "sovereign right" to defend itself from Iraq's alleged WMD threat. “We continue to reserve our sovereign right to take military action against Iraq alone or in a coalition,” Secretary of State Powell said in January 2003.

But international law doesn't recognize any "sovereign right" of one country to invade another. The U.N. Charter mandates that all U.N. member states must pursue peaceful means for settling political disputes and may not resort to force without appropriate international authorization.

“All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered,” the Charter states. “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

These U.N. principles were the direct result of lessons learned during World War II. In the wake of that conflagration, the nations of the world sought to define sovereignty more clearly, as well as place limits on how powers might invoke it when claiming threats from neighboring nations, as Germany did against Poland. But the Bush administration's "war on terror" has challenged these principles over the past two years, bringing back the concept of "pre-emptive" or "preventive" war.

As disorder continues in both Sunni and Shiite areas, the stubborn Iraqi resistance may have wrecked some of the administration's more grandiose schemes of imposing a "free-market democratic" model on Iraq. But Washington's bottom line remains the creation of a pro-U.S. government in Baghdad that will acquiesce to at least some American security demands, such as long-term base rights in Iraq so the United States can project power quickly into other Middle Eastern nations.

In a tacit reaction to the Bush administration's assertion of unilateral rights to invade and control other nations, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned of dangers to the world that would follow a return to an international order based on the “laws of the jungle.”

“Both international terrorism and the war against it have the potential to overturn norms of behavior and human rights standards,” Annan said in January.

It might be said as well that the Bush administration's stretching of words – like "sovereignty" – to mean what they were never intended to mean has the potential to overturn the rationality that rests at the core of all civilization.

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