America's own goal in Iraq

The Coalition Provisional Authority failed to establish a structure for peaceful democracy

When Professor Noah Feldman was helping L Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) write an interim constitution, he was one of a handful of Americans working in the Green Zone who dared emerge from behind the fortified walls, drive around Baghdad or meet Iraqis. "My compatriots told me I was nuts," he says. "After the bombing of the UN compound in August 2003, all they could think of was getting the hell out. Panic had set in."

The dismal failures of Bremer's unlamented CPA are becoming apparent as Iraq lurches towards elections scheduled for January 2005. It is increasingly clear that the climate of fear and loathing within the CPA led officials to skip the hard tasks, such as creating durable government institutions. Consequently, the nation they gracelessly abandoned is a disaster-in-waiting.

So keen were the Americans to wash their hands of the awkward mosaic of Iraq's tribal, regional and religious interests, that they couldn't even face drawing up constituency boundaries. As a result, Iraq is one seat, with 275 members of parliament to be elected by proportional representation. Iraqis will be asked to vote for national party lists, rather than to pick a local person representing the interests of their town.

According to Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, Bremer's system guarantees power will lie with big, organised, well-funded party machines that decide who tops the lists. The overall effect will be to polarise the debate, penalising moderates or well-regarded local candidates or those without wealthy Iranian and Saudi backers. In short, the CPA-bequeathed voting system will emphasise the sectarian nature of the country, a spectacular own goal for the White House.

Add to this the ruthlessness of some Shia parties not known for their commitment to pluralism. "For us, democracy is a train to get us to power. Once we get the power, we don't need the train any more," says one religious scholar/politician.

So why didn't Bremer insist on a structure to protect minority interests, before he scuttled on to the first plane home? Insiders suggest he was preoccupied with keeping the powerful Shia religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani from mobilising his followers and adding to the CPA's security nightmare.

Gareth Stansfield of the Royal Institute of International Affairs predicts that the prospect of Shia domination will spark serious unrest among the Kurdish people, of whom 70,000, it is estimated, are still armed guerrillas. "The Kurds have been autonomous since 1991, and they understand federalism, whereas the Shias, making up 60 per cent of the population, are suspicious and desperate to maximise their power in the new Iraq," Stansfield explains. "The Sunnis have been so marginalised by the CPA that they increasingly see their only hope in violence, through a well-organised and popular insurgency which will gather pace in the run-up to the elections.

"This could be a disaster. Within months of the election, Iraq could splinter. The insurgency is becoming better organised and focused."

Meanwhile, the uncertain status of Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law becomes ever more obvious. The TAL contained a commitment to equal rights for minorities and women, and a controversial mechanism allowing the Kurds to veto laws railroaded through by the Shias. In the run-up to the adoption of UN Resolution 1546 on 8 June, al-Sistani pressured Bremer to drop any mention of the TAL in the UN motion. Bremer caved in without a fight, thereby enraging the Kurds and worrying Iraqi women's groups.

According to Farida Deif of Human Rights Watch, "The CPA set an example by compromising women's rights to keep religious leaders happy." She points out that what matters is how the courts and religious authorities interpret laws. "After all, many Middle Eastern countries have equal rights for women, but implementation is another thing entirely."

Iraqi family law, the most progressive in the region, is under attack. In March, the Governing Council waited until female members were out of the room to pass Motion 137, putting divorce and inheritance law under the control of the religious authorities. Bremer rejected 137, but Deif warns that the Shia parties intend to impose sharia law when a permanent constitution is written after the elections.

Al-Sistani will be influential in this process. He offers, via his website, detailed instructions on every aspect of women's lives - including when a man is entitled to sex during his wife's period, according to how much blood has soaked her sanitary towel. (Al-Sistani, regarded as a moderate, also decrees that chess and gold cuff links are sinful.)

Noah Feldman, like some other CPA veterans, plays down the significance of radical Islam's increasing popularity in Iraq, believing that al-Sistani is not as powerful as feared. However, the success of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the extremist drift of Sunni politics, call into question Washington's blithe assumption that the troublemakers can be "bought off".

Disillusioned neo-cons now concede that the Bush administration naively placed all its bets on the Shias' willingness to compromise with other Iraqi interest groups. Refugees from the Green Zone fear that high on the US agenda will be a face-saving "peace-with-honour" formula to extract its troops, leaving the Iraqis to their fate. Perhaps those who want democracy to emerge from the ashes should have demanded that the occupiers finish what they started. Instead, by cutting and running, George W Bush has achieved his aim of getting Iraq off America's TV screens.