US policy makers and commentators have been left reeling by the breadth and speed of Iraq's April rebellion. Particularly crushing have been the absence of any public Iraqi support for the US during these stunning setbacks, the decision by the country's security forces to step aside or even join the insurgents, and the resignations from the US-appointed governing council. Some US pundits have now accused Iraqis of not having the stomach to fight for democracy, and US spokesmen have condemned the "thugs" they claim are fighting to prevent democracy taking root in Iraq.
The reality is in fact diametrically opposite. It is the US that has refused to allow elections to choose a government after June 30 in order to continue to exercise control over Iraq. Even before the latest crisis, Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, had trouble enough with his hand-picked governing council. Dealing with an elected body that would demand a real say in running the country would be an endless battle.
So the coalition has put democracy on hold until it can be safely managed. That must change, with a policy shift that embraces national aspirations, since no Iraqis will countenance anything less than a full political engagement after a war and occupation whose only acceptable rationale for them was the promise of democracy.
In sticking to his anti-elections position, and maneuvering to limit Iraqis' freedom to adopt a democratically agreed constitution, Bremer has wounded the credibility of both UN secretary general Kofi Annan and Ali al-Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah who helped keep Iraqi Shia from using force to challenge the occupation.
This is not to take away from the centrality of coalition blunders in the upheaval - the results of which have undercut, once and for all, the US mantra that only a few Iraqis oppose their presence. They show how utterly out of touch the coalition has been with the anti-occupation passions harbored by the vast majority of Iraqis. They were bound to be ignited into a national firestorm by the decision to go after the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, just as a terrible collective punishment was being meted out to Falluja. The onslaught on that blockaded city, which has killed between 600 and 1,000 mostly civilian Iraqis, has intensified worldwide Muslim anger against the US.
It was in January and February, though, that the groundwork was laid for the rebellion. The coalition then refused the repeated demand by Sistani that a new Iraqi government must emerge through elections. The immediate crisis was only resolved when the Ayatollah turned to Kofi Annan to determine whether credible elections could be held by the June 30 date the US had picked for the handover of sovereignty. With the help of UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan concluded that the June 30 date should not be postponed and that therefore there was not enough time to hold credible elections - which in turn meant that the new Iraqi government would be picked by the Americans.
Sistani, and most of Iraq, was astounded at being so comprehensively undercut by the UN. The man who had restrained the Shia revolt had been made to look powerless to deliver for Iraqis. Thus was the basis laid for the current Shia uprising, along with the increasingly public US debate about the need to station US troops for years to come to ensure Iraq stays on the "right" path. In a polarizing environment of impoverishment, insecurity, disenfranchisement and suspicion, it was clear that it would not take much for Iraq to explode.
Sistani will no doubt recover the support he enjoyed if US policy shifts in favor of a politically negotiated settlement to end occupation. But the damage inflicted on the UN in Iraq is long-term and will seriously hobble its ability to play the role of an honest broker.
It was astonishing that Mr Annan backed the US position on elections and the June sovereignty date when it was so overwhelmingly opposed by Sistani and the majority of Iraqis. There was a strong anti-UN outcry within Iraq, even from the governing council, and Sistani, who rarely departs from his cautious tone, made public his fury and threatened not to meet Brahimi when he returned.
The UN ended up intensifying the crisis it needed to resolve, again appearing pro-US, anti-Iraqi and anti-democratic to boot - a terrible mistake if the UN is to return to Iraq with any measure of safety.
The UN image has fallen to abysmally low levels in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it must correct its excessive pro-US tilt if it is to function there with the people's support. But doing this will only be possible if the US itself recognizes that the legitimacy it seeks from UN imprimaturs is becoming less and less meaningful, and relieves the excessive pressure it places on the secretary general.
· Salim Lone was director of communications for the UN in Iraq until last autumn.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004