June 29, 2004; Page A14
Nothing became the U.S. occupation of Iraq more than the way it ended -- early. Yesterday morning, two days ahead of a self-imposed deadline, L. Paul Bremer wrapped up his 14-month regency and quietly turned over power to President Ghazi Yawer, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the rest of the interim government tasked with preparing the country for elections. Then he left immediately.
The significance of this gesture toward a country and a region that does not always trust U.S. intentions cannot be underestimated. America has kept its word. None other that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had already conceded the symbolic importance of the day. Writing in a letter captured some months back by the Coalition, the al Qaeda-linked terrrorist pointed out that his attacks would no longer be seen as strikes at America but on Iraqis themselves.
The opponents of Iraq's liberation are predictably spinning the event as much ado about not much, pointing out that the U.S. will maintain or increase troop levels in the country for the foreseeable future. But all significant decision-making power will really be in Iraqi hands, and our forces will be there at the invitation of a sovereign nation. Attempts to paint the new administration as U.S. puppets are also wide of the mark, and offensive to men and women risking their lives to build a better Iraqi future. We've met just about every important figure in the new group. They are all highly intelligent and not shy about voicing their disagreements with various American policies.
The biggest U.S. mistake, virtually everybody now seems to agree, was not trusting them with the keys to their own country very much sooner. Iraqis did welcome their liberation from Saddam's tyranny last April, just as the Bush Administration and prominent dissidents like Ahmed Chalabi had predicted. But Washington panicked amid exaggerated reports of postwar chaos and looting, and it quickly dispatched the autocratic Mr. Bremer to replace the consensus-building Jay Garner.
What was then called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was renamed the Coalition Provisional Authority [our emphases]. With Foggy Bottom's fervent backing, Mr. Bremer threw aside the recommendations of the State Department's own Future of Iraq Project that there be no significant gap in Iraqi sovereignty and declined to empower the representative and competent Governing Council that he himself had appointed.
Not surprisingly, then, Iraqis began to blame the Americans for a year without improvements in things like electricity generation. The worst of the failures was in security, where Mr. Bremer behaved as if he had all the time in the world to stand up Iraqi forces and rebuffed repeated offers from Kurdish, Shiite and Iraqi National Congress parties to supply loyal anti-Baathist fighters. When violence flared this April, the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps -- which had been built by these groups -- was one of the few to pass the test.
Security is thus an area where we can expect more than symbolic change in a sovereign Iraq. The new leaders can't help but do a better job than the Coalition has in vetting loyal forces -- indeed, many of them might not have survived the past 15 months without such aptitude. They will also have a kind of legitimacy the U.S. never did to authorize forceful policies against the enemy, perhaps even in the likes of Fallujah.
We're guessing the country's newly sovereign ministries, which can draw on a surfeit of homegrown engineers rather than foreign contractors, will likewise mark a major improvement. But most of the benefits of sovereignty are inchoate and will flow from the fact that 15 months after being given their freedom Iraqis have finally been given their dignity too. The latest opinion polls show overwhelming support for the new government.
The most important thing for this new Iraqi government to keep in mind is that its continued legitimacy depends almost entirely on progress toward elections. There have been a few recent suggestions of delay unless there's a pristine security environment. But such words only encourage the Baathist and Islamist terrorists in their attempts to derail Iraqi democracy. Iraqis and the Coalition both won a big victory by beating the deadline for the sovereignty handover. They'll win even bigger with timely elections.