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Critics contend the United States is abandoning rule-of-law gains made in the interim Iraqi constitution in favor of a UN-brokered solution that may satisfy a political timetable-but not the Iraqi people.

It was 1 a.m. in Baghdad, lights across the city were out, and a chill lengthened along with the hour at headquarters for the Iraqi Governing Council. Ahmad Chalabi took the floor to remind weary colleagues, "We are a nonelected body writing a law to bind an elected body at a time when we are under occupation." Despite the difficulty of the task, he now recalls saying, "Do not forget the significance of this situation ... if this law prevails, no Iraqi will be denied his citizenship or rights, even if he is a Jew."

Hyperbole is no stranger to Mr. Chalabi, but in this case the Shiite leader of the Iraqi National Congress underscored a profound moment last February for the Arab world: If Iraq's 25 ethnically and religiously divided council members could agree on a transitional law, now known as TAL, to guide the country toward constitutional government, even the region's most hated minority could win equal rights in the heart of the Muslim world.

To nearly everyone's astonishment, the Iraqis did pass a remarkable interim constitution. The tragedy is that recent actions of the occupying powers-that is, the United States-threaten to undo much of the accomplishment, and just when Iraqis need it.

In approving a new interim government this month, U.S. officials downplayed the law in favor of a brokered arrangement with help from the United Nations and its Algerian envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. To longstanding U.S. allies in Iraq, that looks like politics from the old Middle East. If Iraqis worry that the newly appointed interim government lacks legitimacy, they worry not that it's too closely linked to the Bush administration but too far removed from the president's goal of constitutional government in Iraq.

"The TAL is key to this effort," said Qubad Talabani, spokesman for governing council member Jalal Talabani. "It's of concern that it's not mentioned at all in the [UN] resolution" currently under Security Council consideration. That resolution is touted as the means to guide Iraq's movement toward January 2005 elections, rather than the TAL. Mr. Talabani also noted that President Bush did not allude to the TAL in a May 25 speech laying out a U.S. roadmap to Iraqi sovereignty. "These are glaring omissions," Mr. Talabani told WORLD.

"A lot of people consider this document the most important legacy of U.S. political occupation in rebuilding Iraq, for both Iraqis and the Americans," said Nina Shea, director of the Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom. "Not to affirm it at this critical juncture is mind-blowing."

Baghdad journalist Hiwa Osman said a draft UN resolution that fails to incorporate the TAL has a "fatal flaw." In its absence, he said any UN resolution "will leave the Iraqi individual unprotected, the new government adrift in a sea of political sharks, and the international community's credibility questioned."

In 39 articles hammered out over three months, the TAL is unlike anything on the books in the Arab world. It establishes a system of government in Iraq that is "republican, federal, democratic, and pluralistic," It also:

guarantees equal rights to all Iraqi citizens, including non-Arabs defrocked by Saddam Hussein;

restores citizenship to those stripped of it under the former regime;

guarantees "full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice";

protects free speech, freedom to join unions and political parties, freedom to travel, to bear arms, and to own private property;

subjects armed forces to civilian control.

With those guarantees in place, many Iraqis believe the country should already have moved quickly toward national elections that will allow political leadership-long suppressed under Saddam-finally to emerge and compete for popular support. Delaying that process, first with the U.S.-picked Governing Council and now the UN-brokered interim government, leaves a street-level vacuum presently being filled by Islamic clerics as extreme as they are charismatic.

In the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis have concluded that the principle guiding their future is election-year politics. America, they are learning, has the muscle for regime change but not the stomach. Kerry supporters, they believe, would like nothing better than to see Iraq crumble into anarchy. Bush operatives want out of Iraq quickly and cleanly, requiring them to appease European allies with UN intervention. Mr. Brahimi and UN operatives, they say, are bypassing the TAL as a way to appease the Arab world dictators and Iraq's Islamic clerics.

Iraqis know their Middle East history better than do Americans. When Mr. Brahimi was an Arab League diplomat during talks to end civil war in Lebanon, he arranged to consolidate Syria's military occupation of the Bekaa Valley, giving the Baath regime in Damascus more than a decade to co-opt legitimate democracy in Beirut.

The Bush administration overestimates most Iraqis' opinion of the UN, according to longtime observer and missionary Ken Joseph, an Assyrian Christian whose grandparents were born in Iraq. "Iraqis despise the United Nations," Mr. Joseph told WORLD. During nearly a decade of administering Iraq's economy under the oil-for-food program, "it did nothing for them but take their money and refuse to stand up to Saddam Hussein," he said. Average Iraqis, he said, are concluding, "The only people who want the Iraqis to succeed are the Iraqis."

These and other frustrations added up to a not-so-subtle rebuke for the U.S. leaders in Iraq at the formal two-hour session inaugurating the new interim government in Baghdad on June 1. Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, found seats in the audience, while the new interim government and Mr. Brahimi took the podium. The cheap seats were a good place for U.S. officials to regroup, after they were stung by the refusal of Adnan Pachachi, their choice for interim president, to accept the post. The 81-year-old Sunni was not the choice of the Governing Council, who rightly judged that he has little support among most Iraqis, and who resent his spending the last decade abroad.

In his place the Governing Council, with Mr. Brahimi's active endorsement, chose Ghazi Yawer, a Sunni Arab tribal leader and the candidate favored by a majority of Governing Council members.

"My pledge to you is to put every effort to bring back Iraq's civilized face, its constructive face, and its good face in the region," he said. "I will take our country out of this mess and bring back security and safety." Mr. Brahimi lamented the recent military action, telling the audience, "I know you have suffered from this war."

Besides any thanks or nod to U.S. leaders, notably absent from the ceremony were the United States' closest allies on the Governing Council: Mr. Chalabi and Kurdish leaders Mr. Talabani and Massoud Barzani. A car bomb ripped through Mr. Talabani's party headquarters a few hundred feet from Governing Council headquarters hours before the ceremony, killing three people and injuring 20. (During the ceremony, several rockets landed around the U.S. compound known as the Green Zone, wounding one Iraqi. Another car bomb killed 11 Iraqis outside a U.S. base north of Baghdad.)

While the violence may have played a part in their failure to show, the three allies have other reasons to stay away. "Since this government is temporary, one view would be that to participate is to taint yourself," observed Mr. Joseph, who attended the event.

But the United States has also given each of them reasons to stay away. In recent weeks all three have voiced concern that the Bush administration might jettison hard-won TAL gains in favor of a swift and centralized UN roadmap for postÐJune 30 Iraq. For Mr. Chalabi, in particular, longstanding ties to Bush administration officials ended with a May 20 raid on his home and offices.

Eight armed U.S. contractors paid under a State Department program directed Iraqi police officers in the Baghdad raid. Eyewitnesses say they ripped out computers, overturned shelves, smashed photographs, and confiscated a family Koran. Mr. Chalabi's U.S. spokesman, Entifadh Qanbar, told WORLD that while the raid was in progress, the Americans, who work for DynCorp, helped themselves to food from Mr. Chalabi's refrigerator and sat down in an outdoor courtyard to eat. Asked about Mr. Chalabi's relationship with the U.S. authorities in Iraq today, Mr. Qanbar quickly replies: "Nonexistent."

The FBI announced on June 2 that it is formally investigating whether Mr. Chalabi leaked sensitive information to Iran. Mr. Chalabi and his spokesmen deny the charges. So far, details of the charges have been vetted only by anonymous sources from the CIA and State Department to major news outlets. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice responded cautiously when asked about the investigation: "I actually can't comment on this story. I don't know about its veracity or not. I'm sure if there is anything there, it will be investigated."

Dumping Chalabi could be a net loss for Iraqis and the Bush administration. When it came time to resolve seemingly unbridgeable differences leading up to passage of the TAL last February, Mr. Chalabi and other so-called "secular" Shiites (who identify with Shiite traditions but do not embrace Islamic government) worked to patch differences among lead cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani and others who favored Islamic government, the Governing Council, and Mr. Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority. Mr. Chalabi shuttled between Baghdad and Najaf with drafts. The political leaders persuaded Mr. Sistani to accept, among other concessions, an interim constitution stating in Article 7 that Islam is "a source of legislation" rather than "the" source of law. Non-Muslims fear those words will drop from permanent law without the diplomacy of Shiite moderates like Mr. Chalabi.

Even as Iraq's new leadership gathered in Baghdad, Mr. Chalabi was in Najaf trying to negotiate a lasting ceasefire and pullout by Moqtada Sadr's militia to end the confrontation there with U.S. Marines.

But many in the administration believe Mr. Chalabi is a high-maintenance ally. Given to brash ego and fine suits, Mr. Chalabi received at the height of his usefulness $340,000 a month-first from the U.S. State Department, then from the Defense Intelligence Agency-for help in Iraq. With the funds he ran his own spy network. He held long-standing consultations with members of Congress, trained a force of thousands to fight alongside U.S. soldiers at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and fended off at least nine assassination attempts from Saddam. Republicans regularly called him the "leading voice" among anti-Saddam figures.

But like many exiled Iraqis who prospered abroad while their counterparts suffered under Saddam Hussein, Mr. Chalabi gets low marks from Iraqis. Fellow Council members complain that he is heavy-handed, a competent politico who has channeled his gifts the wrong way. "But no one," according to a Governing Council representative who asked not to be identified, "wants to see an Iraqi treated this way, particularly a member of the Governing Council and head of his party. It was not right."

Stormy seas, however, can produce fast friendships inside the boat. Kurds and Assyrian Christians historically jostle for power in northern Iraq but have met twice in the last month to discuss local power-sharing and regional security leading up to what everyone believes will be a particularly storm-tossed transition. Non-Arabs in particular see Iraq divided along geo-ethnic lines, with Shiite strongholds eventually adopting Islamic law in the south, Kurds and other minorities cementing democracy in the north, and a chaotic Sunni-dominated middle.

"It is the best of times and the worst of times," said Mr. Joseph. "On a day-to-day basis, it is wonderful to be in Iraq. People know that they are free. They have electricity all the time now in Baghdad. But Iraqis are longing just to be normal, to go out and buy an air conditioner and send their kids to school. And thugs are waiting in the wings."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.