PALO ALTO, Calif. — The Bush administration made a fatal mistake by deciding not to crack down on the firebrand Shiite cleric Moktada el Sadr during a period of several months, according to an adviser to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, who just returned from Baghdad.
“It was a disastrous failure of nerve,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, told the Forward in a wide-ranging interview upon his return from Iraq. “I find it incredible that an administration that had the nerve to go to war against Saddam Hussein did not have the nerve to go to war against Moktada el Sadr until it was too late.”
Sadr, the son of a leading Shiite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999, gained prominence in the immediate aftermath of the war with his fiery anti-American sermons and his alleged involvement in the killing of a rival Shiite leader in August 2003. However, he then retreated from public view at a time when the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, became embroiled in disputes with the provisional authority over issues such as elections and a transitional constitution.
But Diamond claims that the Coalition Provisional Authority knew at the time that Sadr was actively recruiting for his “Mahdi army” militia, seizing public buildings in parts of Baghdad and the South and imposing harsh Islamic rules in the areas under his control.
Moreover, Diamond noted, the authority had issued a warrant for his arrest soon after the murder of the Shiite cleric last summer, and many authority leaders and military officials — including the authority’s chief administrator, L. Paul Bremer — were eager to act on it.
However, he said, officials in Washington, D.C., fearing a backlash from the Shiite community, decided against it. On at least one occasion, he said, Washington overruled a decision by the provisional authority to act decisively against the cleric.
He said he did not know who made the decision. The Coalition Provisional Authority is part of the Pentagon but formally answers to the National Security Council.
When the U.S.-led coalition finally confronted Sadr in early April by closing his newspaper and arresting one of his top aides, he already had established a strong power base and was ready to launch the insurgency that American authorities are still trying to quell.
Although Diamond opposed going to war in Iraq without strong international support, he felt it was his duty to go to Baghdad when his ex-Stanford colleague, Condoleezza Rice, called him in early November and asked him to provide his academic expertise on democratic transition to the provisional authority.
Diamond worked between January and March in the authority’s so-called governance office. He returned April 1 and will not go back.
“I gave a lot of advice on a number of issues. Some of it had an impact,” Diamond said when asked if he felt he was able to shape policy in Iraq. “Bremer leaned very heavily on the office of governance and on people in the office who constituted his closest and most trusted advisers.”
While he refused to elaborate about his departure and did not offer direct criticism of Bremer, he has publicly spoken of the “obsession with centralized control” that characterized the provisional authority.
He also criticized two of Bremer’s key decisions: the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the decision to ban members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party from significant positions. Both decisions have been reversed in recent weeks.
He said the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal obviously had inflamed anti-American feelings in Iraq and that this was one more reason for not delaying “by 10 seconds” the transfer of authority to an interim government June 30.
“The country would just blow up” if there is a delay, he said.
This, he said, is why he believes the plan being hatched by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and U.S. officials for an interim government will have a “calming effect.”
The plan calls for a government led by a prime minister and a cabinet, with a president and two vice-presidents symbolically representing Iraq’s three main groups, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. While no parliament will be elected, Brahimi is planning to select through indirect means a national conference of some 1,000 to 1,500 delegates who will then choose a smaller group of advisers to the cabinet.
“What worries me is that Iraqis will not accept as legitimate simply having the U.N. appoint these people,” said Diamond, noting that plans to choose the government through an indirect selection process had to be scrapped because of the growing violence and the lack of time.
He said he was “profoundly skeptical” that nationwide elections could take place before the end of January 2005 as scheduled, given the security situation on the ground.
Another major concern is the possibility that militias affiliated with key members of the U.S.-appointed governing council could undermine the transitional government if the parties are not granted a substantial role.
Several council members have expressed opposition to the Brahimi plan, which envisions the council’s dissolution.
This is why Diamond believes that one of the worst consequences of the continuing violence is the derailment of a comprehensive plan by the provisional authority to demobilize those militias and integrate them into national army and police forces.
In recent weeks, U.S. forces have in fact asked some of the parties and their militias for their support in rooting out the Sadr insurgency.
The prospect of a divided country and of a civil war is actually what gives Diamond hope that the Iraqis, “a practical people,” eventually will support the interim government.
“The emotional sentiment for the United States to withdraw and get out has dramatically increased in recent weeks,” he said. “However, many Iraqis understand that you can’t have a security vacuum and a civil war, so they don’t want the United States to leave before an ordained transition process is in place.”