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San Francisco Chronicle April 11, 2004

June 30 pledge carries weight as a symbol

Iraqis expect transfer of power -- but no one knows what's next

By Matthew B. Stannard

June 30, the day President Bush has promised to hand responsibility for Iraq back to the Iraqis, may prove to have less in common with America's Fourth of July than it does with, say, Flag Day: a date of symbolic and historic importance, but little more.

Nevertheless, analysts say, it is vitally important that the United States stand by its commitment to restore at least a limited form of sovereignty to Iraq on that date -- or one close to it -- no matter how violent the country is then or how limited the actual transfer of power will be.

Otherwise, the United States might face new levels of Iraqi resentment that, in turn, could contribute to greater instability and violence.

"I think the scream throughout Iraq and the Arab world would be 'occupation, imperialism, duplicity' -- and those are the nicer phrases," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "It's much more important to have Iraqi sovereignty than a perfect Iraq."

The White House, for its part, is standing fast by the announcement it made last November setting the June 30 deadline, despite questions from members of Congress in both parties and sharp criticism from presumed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who has called the date "arbitrary" and "a fiction" that should be reconsidered, given the instability in Iraq.

"Some have suggested that we should respond to the recent attacks by delaying Iraqi sovereignty. This is precisely what our enemies want," Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday. "They want America and our coalition to falter in our commitments before a watching world. In these ambitions, the enemies of freedom will fail. Iraqi sovereignty will arrive on June 30th."

Dan Senor, spokesman for Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, has said the U.S. intention is simple:

"After June 30 (Iraqis will be) in control of their political destiny," he said Wednesday. "We will be handing over political sovereignty to them. The coalition's role, Ambassador Bremer's role in the Iraqi political process will end, but American forces will still have a substantial role in Iraq."

The U.S-led Coalition Provisional Authority now counts down the number of days to June 30 on its Web site, www.cpa-iraq.org. Yet the details of the plan remain murky.

Originally, as outlined in a Nov. 15 agreement between the occupation authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, the plan had specific steps: a "fundamental law" that was to be completed by Feb. 28, security agreements on the role of U.S. and other occupation troops in Iraq to be signed by the end of March, a Transitional National Assembly to be selected by May 31 and the return of sovereignty on June 30, to be followed by a constitution and elections in 2005.

The fundamental law, which serves as an interim constitution, was signed in early March after some last-minute jockeying over power-sharing. But the agreement's other elements appear to have been overtaken by events. Plans governing security were criticized in a report by a U.N. fact-finding mission in February. It found that most Iraqis oppose giving the non-elected council, considered illegitimate by many Iraqis, authority to make long-term agreements on the role of foreign troops.

"They consider that anything else would be illegitimate and would offer the impression that the process by which security agreements were reached was neither transparent nor accountable," the U.N. report found.

That report, in turn, appears to have been rendered moot by Bremer, who in March announced that the coalition had authority to keep troops in Iraq under existing Security Council resolutions. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld publicly declared that as far as the military is concerned, June 30 means nothing.

"The deadline applies to political governance of the country. It does not apply to the security responsibility," including U.S. control of the Iraqi military, Rumsfeld said. "There is no plan to change the security situation on June 30."

But the transfer of political governance is a bit of a mystery, too, analysts say. The law of administration calls for an assembly with a president and two vice presidents in a presidential council that will, in turn, choose a prime minister who wields most day-to-day power. The political structure seeks to delicately balance the competing interests of Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

The top positions have yet to be filled because the 275-member National Assembly, which will choose the officials, has yet to be elected. Until elections are held, the interim constitution calls for the government to be "constituted in accordance with a process of extensive deliberations and consultations with cross-sections of the Iraqi people" by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqi Governing Council and possibly the United Nations.

Most analysts expect the Iraqi government on July 1 to be more or less the same Governing Council that exists now -- or an expanded version of it -- which may or may not have a coalition-appointed president or prime minister.

"Who gets that job?" asked Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington. "Because if this is a setup to turn it over to an administration favorite, then it's cosmetic and it's going to create a furor in Iraq, as if we don't have one already."

Among those reported to covet the prime minister's seat is Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress who has close ties to the Bush administration but virtually no popular support in Iraq. The future of the rest of the Iraqi government is murky, too. Bremer recently announced, with much fanfare, that several ministries -- Health, Education and Public Works -- have entered the "final stages" of sovereignty. Yet he recently appointed a small army of bureaucrats, from deputy ministers to inspectors general, with multiyear terms.

Analysts say that move suggests Bremer is expecting the presumably U.S-friendly appointees to keep their positions under the new Iraqi government, although technically it will have the power to dismiss them.

But even if they do, analysts note, Washington has a trump card: billions of dollars in U.S. aid controlled by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

With all of this in the background, some analysts describe the June 30 handoff as more or less a "legal fiction."

"They will have a flag raising; they will have a fine ceremony," said John Pike, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy group. "The fact is, it's more a symbolic event than it is a practical event."

Nevertheless, Pike and other analysts said it is important to provide the Iraqi people that symbol, even if they -- and much of the Middle East -- see it as a gimmick having more to do with America's upcoming presidential election than with Iraq's future.

"At one level it is symbolic, but it's an important symbol," said Charles Peña of the libertarian Cato Institute. "It's important that the United States demonstrates that we're not interested in running the country, and the first step is that we hand the reins of power back over to the Iraqi people, whoever that is. It may turn out we just hand the government over to whatever the current interim government is and say, 'You guys have to work it out.' "

The important thing is to give Iraqis the impression they have a stake in their own country's future, the experts said. "The essential thing here is Iraqification ... to have local government services -- including police -- being provided by Iraqis, to have a government that passes a minimal smell test of being a sovereign government rather than just an American puppet," Pike said.

In fact, some analysts suggested, the United States should go further, using June 30 to announce a date not only for general elections, but for occupying troops to leave the country -- or, at least, to turn the security of the nation over to the United Nations.

"Aside from the change in name, it's hard to see how the situation on the ground will signify change for the U.S. or for Iraqis, and how many around the world are going to see it as a true transfer of sovereignty," said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. "Something more dramatic is needed."

Many experts warn against pulling American soldiers out of the country too soon after the handoff, noting that the government being put together now has had no chance to demonstrate its ability to provide for the country's security with its own police and small army.

But Peña, among others, suggested that keeping U.S. troops in Iraq with no exit date hurts the legitimacy of the new Iraqi government and distracts Washington from the war on terror -- with no guarantee that the presence of American forces helps more than it hurts.

"Whether we stay or go, chaos is likely to happen," he said. "There will be people fighting with each other whether we are in the country or not."

© Copyright 2004, San Francisco Chronicle