On June 28, Iraq formally regained its sovereignty. The departure of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Administrator Paul Bremer marked not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning.
There will be violence in the wake of transfer of sovereignty. Even before moving the ceremony up by two days, CPA security officers had scrapped plans for a lavish hand-off. Fear of roadside bombs forced the American authorities to shuttle dignitaries by helicopter the 18 kilometers between Baghdad International Airport and the Republican Palace where the handover took place. The preemptive ceremony and tacit admission that the U.S. military could not secure the highway into the capital bolstered the confidence of terrorists and insurgents who wish to test Iraq's new government and U.S. resolve.
In some ways, the transfer of sovereignty was anti-climactic. Several hundred U.S. officials remain inside the so-called "green zone." There will be no withdrawal of American troops. But military presence and sovereignty are not mutually exclusive: No one questions the sovereignty of Qatar, Korea, Turkey, Italy, or South Korea, even though they host U.S. bases.
The U.S. decision to remain inside the Republican Palace, however, is a mistake. Saddam rebuilt the facility, despite sanctions, after the 1991 bombing campaign reduced it to rubble. He added huge wings, gardens and a swimming pool. The palace, visible from the crumbling and decrepit Shiite Karrada neighborhood across the Tigris River, now symbolizes not only Saddam's dictatorship, but occupation as well. The continued closure of the Fourteenth of July Bridge triples the commuting time of Iraqis, who once relied on the major thoroughfare connecting two of Baghdad's busiest districts; it is a daily affront to ordinary Baghdadis.
Maintaining a U.S. presence in the palace may buy convenience, but it will not boost effectiveness. In Lebanon, for example, it has been 14 years since the end of the civil war. Beirut is a bustling city sporting fancy boutiques, posh restaurants and beach resorts. And yet U.S. embassy personnel remain restricted to their compound. If U.S. diplomats cannot function in Beirut, how will they interact with Iraqis in Baghdad?
Iraq's interim government, led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, will face many challenges. First and foremost is security. Iraqis will cheer the government on if it is effective. After all, the insurgents are unpopular. Any analogy to southern Lebanon falls flat. Targeting Iraqi civilians with car bombs wins neither hearts nor minds.
However, the political challenges are great. For the past year, Iraqi politicians blamed their ineffectiveness on Bremer who last year, just before the inauguration of the former Interim Governing Council, announced he could veto any Governing Council decision. Populist politicians like Al-Daawa leader Ibrahim Jaafari coupled grandiose promises with explanations that they had not succeeded because of Bremer's veto power. Iraqi politicians can no longer play such games.
Iraqis will be impatient with the failure of the Allawi government to meet expectations. Unfortunately, the new government will be handicapped. The Governing Council spent the first three months of its existence hashing out internal rules and regulations; with a new structure, the new government will have to repeat the process. Iraqis may want responsive government, but they will get paralysis.
The new government's honeymoon will not last long. There is already grumbling that the UN deferred more to outside interests than to Iraqis in selecting the new government. Iraqis point out Allawi's close association to the Jordanian royal family. They see President Ghazi al-Yawar as a concession to Saudi interests. Deputy President Jaafari is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran. Rowsch Shaways, the other deputy president, is close to Turkey.
UN involvement in the new government's selection will not bring lasting legitimacy. Iraqis associate the organization with corruption. Iraqis remember UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's statement in 1998: "Can I trust Saddam Hussein? Yes, I think I can do business with him." Perception is more important than reality. Saddam, wanting to imply UN endorsement, replayed Annan's statement frequently on Iraqi television. Belief in the UN's effectiveness ended on August 19, 2003, when a truck bomb destroyed the UN's Baghdad headquarters. Rather than persevere, the UN fled. The message to Iraqis was clear: the UN does not have staying power; any UN decision can be negated through violence.
Real legitimacy in Iraq will only come through elections, set to occur by January 31, 2005. Any move to delay this will result in cynicism and disillusionment. Confidence has already been shaken by the decision to move a national conference to select an Interim National Council from Baghdad to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Many issues remain unresolved. Against the recommendation of most Iraqis, Bremer and UN Envoy Carina Perelli have endorsed a party slate system similar to Israel's. Most Iraqis (militant Shiite Islamists excepted) prefer a single-member constituency system in which voters choose among candidates for a specific district seat. Accountability breeds moderation. While a party slate election is easier to conduct, it will set Iraq down the slippery slope to Lebanese-style communalism. Party slate elections can also lead to huge numbers of Iraqi towns and villages having no representatives in the national government. And they will make the Iraqi electoral process more vulnerable to an influx of Saudi, Iranian and Jordanian money. Simply put, it is easier to fund an entire party list than to buy voters in 275 districts.
It is too early either to claim success or mourn Iraq's loss. What is certain is that the U.S. won a stunning military victory in Iraq but lost the occupation. The CPA achieved a great deal but nothing that could not have been done with an immediate transfer of sovereignty. The last battle, the one for a representative, democratic government, has yet to be decided. Iraqis are much more resilient than outside politicians and pundits believe. They have no desire to revert to dictatorship. I have faith they will succeed.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.