In an analysis published Tuesday, Guy Dinmore of London's Financial Times (UK) concluded that the U.S. "has long lost its grip on Iraq's political process."  --  Dinmore's sources:  a "veteran Arabist in the administration," an analyst with Eurasia Group, a U.S. deputy secretary of state, a former U.S. ambassador with close ties to the Kurds, two fellows at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and a senior Kurdish official.  --  This conclusion jibes with our own view that Iraq has entered into the beginning phases of a civil war.  --  Former U.S. ambassador Peter Galbraith estimates that Iraq "may hold together for five more years." ...

News in Depth

By Guy Dinmore

Financial Times (UK)
May 31, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency has reached a "kind of peak." The Sunni now realize they erred in boycotting last January's elections "and so, as Iraqis see their interests as represented in the political process, the insurgency will lose steam."

This sanguine view of the state of affairs in Iraq -- as expressed by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, in a recent Bloomberg interview -- reflects the U.S. administration's struggle to demonstrate that it remains in control and still has an exit strategy.

In the more somber assessment of others in the administration, however, the U.S. has long lost its grip on Iraq's political process. "We are losing control," said one veteran Arabist in the administration who requested anonymity.

He described the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, without an ambassador for about six months, as "out of the loop" and not involved in significant decisions taken by the new transitional government dominated by the Shia Arab majority.

Geoff Porter, analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy, said U.S. interests had been "stymied on most fronts," with U.S. officials frustrated with, and ignorant of, Iraq's fractious politics. "There is an air of resignation, with people throwing up their hands that this will be a long-term process."

The U.S. is not necessarily staring at defeat. The Iraqis may yet work out power-sharing arrangements. And to an extent the Bush administration consciously made an effort to let go before the January 30 legislative elections.

Washington accepted the risk that Iyad Allawi, the prime minister and U.S. favorite at that time, might not win a place in a new government and that his vision of a secular Iraq might be thrust aside. In the event, Mr. Allawi was not included, while Ahmed Chalabi, who had fallen from grace with the U.S., returned to a senior position by aligning himself with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shia religious leader.

"We are not picking the people," Robert Zoellick, deputy secretary of state, said following his two recent visits to Baghdad. But the U.S. did maintain a policy of encouraging an inclusive government, he said. The U.S., he reasoned, had passed from the phase of running Iraq, through encouraging self-government, to the present "very mutual phase" akin to the process of "moving along" a World Trade Organization agreement.

"The U.S. still has enormous influence in terms of financial resources and obviously our military presence. The government knows it needs the support of the U.S. and also our global reach," said Mr. Zoellick, formerly the U.S. trade representative. "They have got to succeed on their own," he said of the Iraqi government led by Ibrahim Jaafari, "but we have got to work closely with them and make our suggestions and prod and push."

Most U.S. prodding is directed at the process of writing a new constitution acceptable to all the main ethnic groups: the majority Shia, minority Sunni, and the Kurds.

Already the U.S. has failed to get more than two Sunni legislators aboard the 55-member parliamentary commission responsible for the project.

The semblance of U.S. control rests on sticking to the timetable laid out by Paul Bremer, Iraq's former U.S. administrator, in the transitional administrative law, or mini-constitution, imposed in March 2004. That envisages a draft constitution completed by August 15, a referendum on the text by October 15, then parliamentary elections by December 15. Again, the U.S. has decided not to involve itself in the detail but aims to uphold principles: a limit to the authority of Sharia law, protection and inclusion of minority groups, and defense of women's rights.

"The Shia may accept the break-up of Iraq as the price of a Shia-dominated Arab state," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador with close ties to the Kurds, estimating Iraq may hold together for five more years.

The U.S., according to Mr. Zoellick and other senior U.S. officials, would be content to have Mr. Bremer's TAL forming "the foundation stone" of the constitution, making Sharia law one source of authority but not the only one.

Mr. Galbraith said a restatement of the TAL would be acceptable to the Kurds as a continuation of "de facto independence," although there needed to be clarification of sharing of natural resources, the status of Kirkuk, and the scope of the national army. The U.S., he said, could not leave Iraq to its own devices now.

Independent experts aiding the Iraqi government are concerned that the 11 weeks left to draft a constitution are not enough and that the U.S. and Iraqi parties are rushing to complete the process.

Neil Kritz and Jonathan Morrow of the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace said it would be very difficult to make the August 15 target date. There should be more time for public consultation, they said, drawing on the positive experiences of South Africa, where 2m people made submissions. In Cambodia and East Timor, a rushed constitutional process led to problems later, they said.

Moreover, one senior Kurdish official said the possibility of U.S. withdrawal in the event of large American losses should not be discounted: "Bush is solid but you never know with American politics."