In an interview on 4 March on a U.S. television news show ("News Hour" on PBS), Abizaid stressed that Iraqis will increasingly share responsibility for security. "As we move from this period of what many Iraqis regard as perceived occupation, we need to move toward one of partnership," he said. "And in this partnership, there's not only shared work, but there's shared responsibility. And I think Iraqi security authorities and us have got to continue to work to prevent these things [the Baghdad and Karbala attacks] from happening."
But, as Abizaid told a committee of the U.S. Congress, there is "no timetable" for the Iraqis to take over enough of that responsibility to the point where they -- not the Americans -- have military superiority in their own country. Abizaid said he expects an indigenous Iraqi military command structure to be functional by the time the United States returns sovereignty to Iraq on 30 June. But he says he does not believe it will be effective until sometime next year.
The biggest security problems remain in central Iraq, the general said, where there is the greatest concentration of loyalists of deposed President Saddam Hussein. As a result, he said, finding recruits willing to oppose these loyalists is more difficult in this region.
There are now about 200,000 indigenous security troops in Iraq. Abizaid said the U.S. military now plans to slow the growth of this force and shift the focus to improving their training. At the rate these troops are improving, he said, U.S. military control is expected to extend long after sovereignty is handed over.
That control could last another two to five years, according to Kenneth Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served most of his career in Europe. And this, he says, could create problems for the provisional Iraqi government that takes over this summer, as well as the government that is voted into office later this year or early in 2005.
Allard told RFE/RL that any people whose security is in the hands of a foreign government tend to see that government as controlling their indigenous leaders. He says he does not expect the Iraqis to react any differently, regardless of how careful the United States is to stay out of Iraqi civil affairs.
"There is inevitably a compromise when you move in and overthrow the existing regime and occupy the territory. Until and unless there is something that grows up to replace Saddam Hussein, [Iraqi government officials] are vulnerable to the charge of, 'Hey, you're simply the lackeys of the Americans,'" Allard said.
Allard says the continued U.S. control of Iraqi security is by no means unprecedented. He says victorious nations and alliances routinely take over such duties, regardless of when they expect to give up that authority. A good example, he said, is West Germany during the Cold War.
"After World War II, the Western Allies -- France, Great Britain, and the United States -- negotiated a status-of-forces agreement between themselves and the West German government, which essentially says, 'OK, here is what we're doing, and here are our rights and responsibilities in your country.' There's no question that's what we're doing in Iraq today," he said.
Judith Kipper is the Washington-based director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, a private policy-research center in New York. She told RFE/RL that in assessing the impact of a continued military presence in Iraq, it is important to remember that Iraq will be sovereign after 30 June. As a result, Kipper says, Iraqis may indeed accept Abizaid's characterization of a U.S.-Iraqi "partnership" rather than U.S. military supremacy in their country.
"It's not going to be an occupation when the Iraqis have sovereignty. [The Americans are] going to be there with the agreement of the Iraqi sovereign power to maintain security. In this case, the motivation is less important than what's going on on the ground," Kipper said.
Further, Kipper says, she expects the United States eventually can share responsibility for security -- and occasional blame for security lapses -- with others, especially next year, after an elected Iraqi government is installed. "The UN will be more active," she said. "There will be a major UN envoy there, appointed at that time. Maybe, eventually, like in Afghanistan, NATO will be introduced. It'll be with the agreement of the Iraqi government, and people will be happy with it if their lives get better. If their lives don't get better, they're obviously going to blame the U.S."
Either way, Kipper says, the credibility of Iraq's government will be restored once the people of Iraq see their national pride restored, one they are in control of their own destiny, and once Iraqis are finally the decision-makers in their country's future.
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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