There had never been an American design to dominate and rule the Iraqis
No Iraqi poet will sit down to write stirring poetry in celebration of yesterday's transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. No jihadist, it must be conceded, will see in the drama that has played out in Baghdad reason to call to a halt the campaign of holy terror let loose on Iraq's cities. That fabled "Arab street," we know, will insist that this is a quisling Iraqi government doing the bidding of the Pax Americana.
But the unadorned, brief ceremony that saw the American regent, L. Paul Bremer, to a C-130 at the Baghdad airport had a dignity and a power all its own. There had never been an American design to dominate and rule the Iraqis. This was not a charade that has just been pulled off in Iraq. We are eager to come out well from this expedition to Iraq, and the transfer of authority marks the beginning of a new relationship between Iraqis and their American liberators.
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To be sure, it is not "normal" sovereignty that has come to Iraq. A country with 160,000 foreign soldiers on its soil cannot be said to be wholly free. It is idle to pretend that the American ambassador, John Negroponte, will run a standard diplomatic mission. He will dispose of a vast reconstruction package, and a formidable military presence will underscore his authority. But freedom can't be a fetish. There are the needs of Iraq, and they are staggering. There is the nemesis of Iraq's freedom, an insurgency drawing its fury and pitilessness from the forces of the old despotism, and from jihadists from neighboring lands who have turned Iraq into a devil's playground. We should be under no illusions about this insurgency. Its war against the new Iraq will not yield. For their part, the jihadists have a dreadful animus for the "apostates" within the world of Islam who ride with the infidels.
Indeed, that prince of darkness, the jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian sowing death in the streets of Iraq, anticipated this shift, and warned that the war would continue. "We do not wage our jihad in order to replace the Western tyrant with an Arab tyrant. We fight to make God's word supreme, and anyone who stands in the way of our struggle is our enemy, a target of our swords." The interim prime minister, Mr. Allawi, is a principal target of the Zarqawi bigots. "We have prepared for you a vicious poison and a sharp sword, we have prepared for you a full cup of death," Zarqawi warned the new Iraqi leader, in an audiotape released last week. The lines are drawn: A man of the Iraqi state against a drifter who has come to that country in search of a new battleground.
Grant Zarqawi his due: months earlier, in a message intercepted in Iraq -- one that Zarqawi had intended for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri -- the Jordanian foresaw the shape of things to come. "America is being bloodied in Iraq," he said, "but has no intention of leaving, no matter the bloodletting among its own soldiers. It is looking to a near future, when it remains safe in its bases, while handing over control to a bastard government with an army and a police force . . . . There is no doubt that our field of movement is shrinking, and our future looks more forbidding by the day." It was war, Zarqawi wrote, with a stark realism, or "packing our bags and looking for a new field of battle, as has been the case in other campaigns of jihad, because our enemy grows stronger with every passing day."
Zarqawi and his breed of militants know that a native Iraqi government can shelter behind the call of home and hearth and of Iraq's right to a new political life. Americans can't hunt down the restless young men thrown up by the chaos of Arab lands, perhaps encouraged to make their way to Iraq, to kill and be killed. This is a task for Iraqis. It is for them to reclaim their country from the purveyors of terror. It is one thing for Fallujah to pose as the citadel of Islam against the infidels; it is an entirely different matter for that town to take up arms against a native government -- even one protected by a vast foreign force. Iyad Allawi can call the insurgents "enemies of Islam," as he did after the transfer of authority. It is awkward, at best, for George W. Bush to insert himself into that fight over, and for, Islam. In the same vein, we warned Iraq's neighbors to keep their fires -- and their misfits -- away from Iraq, but it was infinitely more convincing when Mr. Allawi told his neighbors that Iraqis would not forget those who stood with them, and those who stood against them.
In their fashion, Iraqis have come to see their recent history as a passage from the rule of the tyrant to the rule of the foreigner. This has given them an absolution from political responsibility and toil. Dependence was easy, and easy, too, was holding America responsible for everything under the sun. A measure of this abdication on the part of Iraq's people will have to yield in recognition of this (circumscribed) sovereignty that has come their way.
Iraq's Shiite majority now faces a great historical test. The Shiites can make Iraq or they can break it. Their history has been a sorrowful alternation between fear and quietism, and doomed rebellions. They have now been delivered from this cycle of history: One of their own, Prime Minister Allawi -- by the appearance of things a skilled political operative -- is now at the commanding heights of political power. And a revered figure from their ranks, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, exercises a subtle influence over the course of the country's political life.
This new Shiite liberty has been an American gift. The Shiites needn't be -- and aren't -- America's proxies in Iraq. But a measure of America's success in Iraq -- a measure of this war's vindication in the scales of history -- will rest on the ability of the Shiite center to hold, and on the willingness of Shiite secularists who honor the separation of religion and politics to look across the border, to that Shiite republic in Iran, and recognize the failure of religious zeal -- and of religious pretension -- to create a tolerable society that works. In the preceding quarter-century, the authoritarian orders in the Arab world held up the Shiite bogeyman as a specter of the darkness that would descend on the Persian Gulf if their writ was questioned, and if the Pax Americana did not come to their rescue. In Iraq, Shiism will be given the chance at a new history.
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"Under Saddam, we lived in a big prison. Now we're in a kind of a wilderness. I prefer the wilderness," an educated Iraqi woman, Dr. Lina Ziyad, said some months back. There were car bombs and terror squads in her country; the Iraqi pendulum had swung from tyranny to anarchy. There were enforcers of virtue keen to impose on this historically secular realm new standards of "Islamic" practice and dress and ritual. Still, there were, and remain, multitudes of Iraqis glad for this new chance at normalcy.
If Mr. Bush and Tony Blair had dispatched a big military force in search of weapons of mass destruction only to end up with a humanitarian war that delivered Iraq from a long nightmare of despotism, the Iraqis will have turned out to be the prime beneficiaries of this campaign. They should not quarrel with their good fortune. In the course of a more normal history, Iraqis would have sacked their own despotism, overturned, on their own, the dictator's monuments and statues, written their own story of rebellion against tyranny. They didn't, and no doubt a measure of their rage, over the last year or so, was the proud attempt of a prickly people to escape that unflattering fact of their history.
America is not to stay long in Iraq. No scheme is being hatched for the subjugation of Iraq's people. No giant American air bases on their soil are in the offing. In their modern history, Iraqis witnessed direct British control over their country (from 1921 to 1932), followed by a quarter-century of a subtle British role in their politics, hidden behind a fašade of national independence. Ours is a different world, and this new "imperium" is the imperium of a truly reluctant Western power.
What shall stick of America's truth on the soil of Iraq is an open, unknowable question. But the leaders who waged this war -- those "architects" of it who have been thrown on the defensive by its difficulties and surprises -- should be forgiven the sense that things broke their way during that five-minute surprise ceremony yesterday morning. They haven't created a "new" Iraq, and sure enough, they have not tackled the malignancies of the Arab world which lay at the roots, and the very origins, of this war. America isn't acquitted yet of its burdens in Mesopotamia. Our heartbreaking losses are a daily affair, and our soldiers there remain in harm's way.
But we now stay under new terms -- a power that vacated sovereignty 48 hours ahead of schedule, and an Iraqi population that can glimpse, just a horizon away, the possibility of a society free from both native tyranny and foreign control. There is nervousness in Iraq: the nervousness of a people soon to be put to the test by the promise -- and the hazards -- of freedom.
Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins, is the author of "Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Vintage, 1999).
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