Iraq

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

The U.S. transferred sovereignty but not real power

JONATHON GATEHOUSE July 12 2004
Iraq

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

The U.S. transferred sovereignty but not real power

JONATHON GATEHOUSE July 12 2004

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

The U.S. transferred sovereignty but not real power, says JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Iraq

IT HAD BEEN HYPED for months as a defining historical moment, but America’s handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people last week ended up feeling more like a nation being born on the wrong side of the blanket. Instead of pomp and circumstance, there was fear and secrecy. No great speeches or civic celebrations, just a fiveminute ceremony, held two days ahead of schedule, before an audience of mostly foreign reporters inside the heavily fortified “Green Zone.” Hardly the stuff of song, story or commemorative postage stamps.

With good reason. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American “administrator,” has been replaced by an ambassador, John Negroponte, but little else has changed. While legal authority now rests with the interim government headed by President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, its powers to enact or alter laws are severely limited. The U.S. will continue

to pay the bills, oversee rebuilding efforts, and try to ensure stability with 160,000 coalition troops. Saddam Hussein may have been standing before an Iraqi judge when he defiantly rejected war crimes accusations last week and declared himself still “president of Iraq,” but the courtroom was on an American military base, and the former dictator remains under U.S. guard.

And if there were any illusions about the effect the transfer of power might have on the swelling resistance movement, they were quickly shattered. In the days after the ceremony, a roadside bomb south of Baghdad killed three U.S. soldiers, while a mortar attack on a camp near the international airport wounded 11 more. Militant groups released videotapes that seemed to show the execution of one GI who disappeared in early April, and footage of a captured Marine threatened with a similar fate.

At home and abroad, the Bush administration has been billing the handover as the beginning of the end of its occupation of Iraq. Elections are supposed to take place by the end of January, but few observers see a smooth route out. “The Iraqi public is divided, confused, puzzled, and contains a number of elements who just flat out hate us,” says Richard Murphy, an assistant secretary of state for the Reagan administration and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria. “This interim government isn’t going to change people’s minds, unless it can provide security. And that’s a tough row to hoe.” Despite the billions America has spent on Iraq over the past 15 months, only 140 of the 2,300 promised rebuilding projects have gotten underway. Basics such as electricity and clean drinking water remain in short supply, while oil production, the backbone of the economy, lags

far behind expectations. “The problems are enormous,” says Murphy, now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York City-based think-tank. “And if they had opened their eyes or read their history, it was all foreseeable.”

U.S. efforts to enlist other countries to help clean up the mess were dealt another blow at a NATO summit in Turkey. The Bush administration was hoping the alliance would commit troops to keep the peace and shore up the fledgling government. Instead, it received a tepid agreement that will see NATO help train troops for the new Iraqi army, with Germany and France explicitly ruling out sending their forces to Iraq.

On the domestic front, the White House has suffered even more serious setbacks in a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings cur-

tailing many of the new powers Bush had asserted in his war on terror. Suspects at Guantánamo Bay and other prison camps can no longer be held indefinitely without legal hearings or counsel, the court said. Nor can the administration continue to shield key information from the public about the 9/11 attacks, and the advice it received on the issue of torturing prisoners. “Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has been advancing a sweeping theory of executive power,” says Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank. “With these rulings, the momentum is now clearly on the side of civil liberties.”

Support for the Iraq conflict, meanwhile,

continues to sink. More than half—52 per cent—of Americans now believe the war wasn’t worth fighting, according to a recent ABC Washington Post poll, and 70 per cent call the number of U.S. casualties there “unacceptable.” Last week, to bolster its stretched forces, the Pentagon took the unusual step of recalling nearly 6,000 soldiers to active duty. And Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s scathing critique of the Bush administration, opened as the No. 1 movie in America, pulling in $23.9 million on its first weekend, a record for a documentary film.

The only bright spot for the President appears to be that the focus on Iraq has knocked his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, out of the media spotlight. “I wouldn’t say that either candidate has much momentum at this

point,” says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan polling group. While Bush’s approval ratings continue to slide, Kerry’s numbers aren’t necessarily climbing. And if current trends hold, the election will come down to the 21 per cent of voters nationally who remain undecided or willing to change their minds. With surveys suggesting those people aren’t particularly paying attention to the campaign, and that they are just as negative about the economy as Iraq, the election is still anybody’s ball game. By November, Americans may be almost as divided and confused as the people in the country the U.S. is trying to leave. ii’il

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com