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Iraq has just turned a page of her history, with the fall of a dictatorship and the hope for a better future. Yet a tragic cycle of disorder and violence has set in. Attacks have been proliferating. Fanaticism and hatred have struck everywhere: the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations, and the Mausoleum of the Imam Ali in Najaf. We are now facing the real risk of seeing the continuation of a spiral of failure fuelled by the lack of a tangible political way forward. This situation is throwing international organizations in Iraq into disarray and arousing the anxiety of all those on the ground. The gravest danger is that of the Iraqi people falling into apathy and despair. Only an injection of new momentum, supported by the international community can make it possible to break this deadlock.
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Everyone’s responsibility is quite clear.
President Bush has indicated his will to make overtures, which we welcome. Yet the draft resolution presented at the Security Council testifies to still-limited progress in the role allotted to the United Nations. As a result, we find ourselves in an increasingly paradoxical situation: can we ask the UN to intervene more broadly on the ground without giving it the ability to act or the essential security conditions? Indeed, can the draft resolution be seen as building on what has already been done? Is it equal to the situation? Is it likely to curb the forces causing the breakdown in Iraq? We don’t think so.
Far be it from us to play down the scale of the task and its complexity, or to maintain the illusion that it’s an easy one. But we have one conviction: by continuing on the current path we run the risk of entering a spiral from which there is no exit. Time is short. In the wake of the war, the direct administration of Iraq by coalition forces has aroused, despite sustained efforts, a persistent malaise among the population. This has delayed still further the restoration of essential public services, the rebuilding of infrastructures. The Iraqis’ legitimate expectations have been disappointed.
But another path remains possible: placing the Iraqi people at the heart of the reconstruction process, and invoking the responsibility of the international community.
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We all share the same goal: establishing stability and creating the conditions for rebuilding Iraq. France is ready to work within the Security Council with the United States and the other countries on the ground for the benefit of Iraq. But we must put an end to ambiguity, which would lead to a failure for the Iraqi people, with the risk of discrediting the international community. This presumes a radically new approach.
This is all the more important in that the entire region is under threat. We all realize that the problem goes beyond Iraq: it’s the stability of the Arab and Muslim world that is at stake. In the Middle East, an exclusively security-oriented approach is only maintaining the cycle of violence and reprisals at the risk of destroying political prospects. This approach–let’s be brave enough to say it–is leading nowhere. Far from promoting stability, it is fanning resentment, incomprehension and frustration. Everywhere terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the least sign of weakness to strengthen their presence and fuel a violence that concerns us all.
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How can we escape from this trap and create the conditions for stability in Iraq?
First and foremost, let us acknowledge that the foreign presence itself is a focal point. Regardless of everyone’s goodwill, it crystallizes people’s frustrations, creates a focus for discontent, distorts the political situation: all the parties involved are determining their stance in relation to it instead of mobilizing on behalf of Iraq. The reconstruction effort requires people to work on a clear basis, and thus establishing a deadline for the ending of the current transition period. That is the key to any progress. It is important above all to respect Iraqi national identity, nurtured by thousands of years of history and source of the country’s future stability. Conversely, we must avoid reinforcing divisions among particular groups or communities.
Iraq is a land of memory. Her attachment to her traditions and her identity have already led her to reject the outside control that some have tried to impose. The result, throughout the last century, was upheavals that profoundly shook the country. From revolution to coup d’etat, the country has been unable to find the peace to which it deeply aspires.
Today it is urgent to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people themselves, to allow them to fully shoulder their responsibilities. Then the different communities will, I hope, find the strength to work together. Then a step forward will have been taken towards greater justice: indeed, it is up to the Iraqis to make the decisions that will affect the future of their country. But it’s also a matter of effectiveness: for the various Iraqi communities as for neighbouring States, only the prospect of a sovereign political destiny can nurture hope and allow the society to rebuild itself.
Does that mean the immediate departure of coalition forces? Certainly not. Indeed, there are many who justly stress that such a move would create a vacuum worse than the current situation. These forces could remain under the command of the main troop contributor. Should more countries participate? The main thing, in our view, is not to increase the number of soldiers on the ground, but to give them a specific UN mandate for their job–one that has a time limit and requires submitting regular, detailed reports to the Security Council. In particular, one of the priorities today is to secure the borders and put a stop to infiltrations. A redeployment of coalition forces could be considered, in cooperation with the Iraqis, in order to address this major risk.
Let us accelerate the training of an Iraqi national army on the model of what we are doing in Afghanistan. That requires calling to some extent upon demobilized Iraqi forces, whose know-how will be indispensable to re-establishing security in a lasting way. The same thing should be done for the police force. In the long run, we could achieve a division of responsibilities more respectful of Iraqi sovereignty and no doubt more effective as well: external security as a priority for UN forces and domestic security for the Iraqi authorities.
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In this context, at a time when negotiations are beginning on a new resolution in New York, we propose the following sequence:
The present Iraqi institutions, i.e. the Governing Council and recently appointed ministers, would be considered by the UN Security Council as the guardians of Iraqi sovereignty during the transition period. Very soon, perhaps in a month, an interim Iraqi government could be established based on these bodies with executive powers progressively transferred to it, including economic and budgetary activities.
A personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General would be mandated to organize consultations with existing Iraqi institutions and the coalition authorities and to muster support from the States of the region. This envoy would report back to the Council and propose a timetable for the gradual transfer of powers to the interim government and the modalities for completing this political transformation.
This timetable should provide for all the stages of a constitutional process with the aim of presenting a draft text by the end of the year. A general election could be envisioned as soon as possible, by spring 2004.
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In this context, France is ready to assume all her responsibilities. As soon as Iraqi sovereignty is re-established, an international conference could be convened to deal with all the problems linked to the country’s reconstruction. It would aim to re-establish the unity and effectiveness of international action to assist Iraq. In the area of security, decisions will have to be made on contributions to the future UN force as well as the training of the army and police force. Likewise, commitments will have to be defined concerning economic aid and the modalities of assistance to be provided to get the Iraqi administration functioning properly again.
This is what lies behind the proposals we are bringing to the Security Council. We are doing so in a spirit of dialogue with the United States and all our other partners. On Saturday in Geneva we will be meeting the other permanent members of the Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan, convinced that the international community can forge its unity around a demanding and ambitious project.
It is an unprecedented challenge. It demands that we understand and adapt to the realities on the ground. It also demands that each one of us forget our past quarrels and abandon ideological biases. The reconstruction of Iraq is a shared duty.
Dominique de Villepin is France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. This essay was originally published in the “Le Monde” newspaper.