BAGHDAD — Close to five months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, frustration with the slow pace of rebuilding and the rapid decline in security is giving prominent Iraqis a platform to promote going it alone.
In two key spheres in which the U.S.-led coalition is having a difficult time asserting its authority — security and governance — prominent Iraqis are threatening to ignore or upstage the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) plans for Iraq.
Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, a highly respected Shiite cleric who withdrew from the interim Governing Council this week, says that he may set up militias around Iraq to address deteriorating security. Ulloum, who was appointed to the council in July by U.S. officials, said he was leaving the council after a car bombing in Najaf a week ago killed at least 85 people, including Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, one of the country's most senior Shiite leaders.
Such militias, already being organized by other groups who were initially supportive of ousting Saddam Hussein, could pose a challenge to U.S. or multinational forces' attempts to assert control over the country.
This week's appointment of Iraqis to head the government ministries was intended to show progress in turning over decision-making powers to Iraqis. But at the same time, other Iraqi figures are now organizing a nationwide conference that will promote itself as the true face of the Iraqi democracy.
The Constitutional Monarchy Movement (CMM), led by Sherif Ali bin Hussein — a Hashemite family prince who is considered by royalists to be the heir to the Iraqi monarchy deposed in 1958 — is organizing a conference of what he says will be approximately 500 political, professional, tribal and legal leaders from all over Iraq. The conference, which Hussein says will be held here later this month, will contest Washington's postwar approach in Iraq.
"The whole society feels like they've been denied the right to participate," says Hussein.
"We have been in discussions for six weeks, and what we are building is a consensus of the real Iraqis. Iraq is occupied and we need to discuss how we should deal with the occupation authorities, because so far, that relationship is one-sided."
Hussein, who returned here in June after being shuttled out of the country during a violent coup at the age of 2, says that the conference will draw on law experts to challenge some facets of U.S. policy here as illegal, and will demand that delegates to the constitutional convention that CPA Administrator Paul Bremer intends to call be chosen through nationwide elections. Currently, CPA officials say they will not hold elections until after a constitution is passed in a referendum — probably at the end of 2004.
"The governing council is a step in the right direction, but it is hardly acceptable that they are merely appointees," Hussein says. "The American coalition has veto power, so the council lacks legitimacy. "
There are no poll figures or other reliable statistics to gauge just how popular the return of a monarchy would or would not be. Hussein is popular with some conservative Iraqis who crave stability and, as a descendent of Imam Ali, he is revered by some Shiites. Others say he lacks a significant domestic power base and allies in Washington.
But perhaps more important than any chance of winning a starring role in Iraq's future is the affront to the U.S.-led authorities here if Hussein and his CMM are able to gather hundreds of Iraqis from around the country.
The key message in both emerging movements: Iraqi faith in the coalition is wearing thin.
"Militias and informal armed groups are really a response to a gap. There's a huge vacuum, people are being killed, and obviously the former regime is using assassination and targeting those cooperating with the new order," says Ali Allawi, appointed this week as Iraq's Minister of Trade, in a telephone interview from Britain. Allawi is leaving his position as an expert in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University to take up his new position next week in Baghdad.
"If people are not getting sufficient protection, you can't blame them for creating alternative frameworks for improving their security. If they don't do this by engaging the Iraqis and getting help from those who by and large disapproved of the old order, it won't work. We have the world hyper-power in charge, and yet we have them unable to sustain a very basic level of security."
Various groups say they are forming militia groups to protect their communities. A former Iraqi army major, who asked not to be named, says he and others from the former Iraqi military are starting a private defense force. He's careful to note that this is not a resistance group — they were not opposed to the U.S. invasion — but in the steamy, late-summer evenings, the crackle of gunfire is as common as crickets. Iraqis say there is rampant crime and a jump in kidnappings for ransom. "What else can we do? We cannot depend on them to ensure our security," the officer says.
Since the U.N. bombing two weeks ago, U.S. officials have become more vocal about their own plans to bring in more Iraqis to fill the security vacuum. CPA officials say better intelligence, not more U.S. soldiers, is what is needed to stop the bombings.
Bremer says there are 40,000 officers in the new Iraqi police force, and the coalition has recruited three battalions of a new Iraqi civil defense corps in the past four weeks, while the first battalion of the new Iraqi army is in training.
"Iraqis are already involved in the security of their country, and we intend to increase that number as we go forward," he said this week.
By the end of 2004, he hopes Iraq will have between 65,000 and 75,000 police officers.
"We believe that there is not a role in the new Iraq for organized militias. We do not believe organized militias are consistent with an independent, unified Iraq," Bremer said. "However, we have encouraged members of existing militias ... to play a role in security.