Features

Iraq: Too late, too soon

Iraq | On the one side, Iraqis impatient with the long transition to elections in January; on the other, those worried that too much remains undone. Squeezed in the middle: the United States

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

A week before the much-anticipated U.S. handover of sovereignty, it was business as usual in occupied Iraq. Coalition forces continued to battle insurgents, killing 23 foreign fighters in a Fallujah home. Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists beheaded a South Korean hostage, who pleaded for his life on Al Jazeera TV. And Islamist militants vowed to assassinate the country's interim prime minister, even before he could be sworn in.

Deadline or not, security remained the Iraqi government's biggest headache going into the June 30 handover. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government offered its blueprint to deal with the insurgency: Impose martial law where necessary, expand the Iraqi army, and create new police and paramilitary units. "They are trying to destroy our country, and we are not going to allow this," Mr. Allawi said on June 20.

Iraqis are determined to succeed, but many see their hope not in the June handover to a government imposed by outsiders, but rather in elections slated for January 2005. The January voting will mark the first time Iraqis have chosen their own leaders since Saddam Hussein took power in 1979.

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For some Iraqis, at least, it can't come a moment too soon. "Basically this interim government is 13 months too late and elections, which are hopefully slated for January 2005, will also be 13 months too late," said Entifadh Qanbar, Iraqi National Congress spokesman, addressing a June 16 symposium in Washington.

Besides coming too late, the interim government taking power on June 30 also suffers from a lack of credibility, said Michael Rubin, a former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) adviser. "The Iraqis accuse us and the United Nations of trying to appease every surrounding Arab country except Iraq" when choosing leaders for the new government, according to Mr. Rubin. Jordan, for example, favored Mr. Allawi, while Ghazi al-Yawar, named as provisional president, was a favorite of Saudi Arabia.

Despite reservations about their new leaders, most Iraqis seem happy to bid farewell to the CPA. Mr. Rubin said the Authority had a "tin ear toward symbolism." Furthermore, officials rarely ventured outside the heavily fortified "Green Zone" where they were insulated from the day-to-day hardships caused by their security measures, including barricaded roads and bridges that created intolerable commute times.

But even with the CPA poised to disappear, U.S. officials left much crucial work undone. Mr. Rubin complained that coalition forces still hadn't secured Iraq's porous borders, the main gateway for foreign insurgents pouring into the country. Nor did the United States secure a "status of forces" agreement with the new Iraqi government, leaving some 135,000 American troops in a kind of limbo with their host country.

Without such an agreement, Iraqi courts, for instance, could claim jurisdiction to try U.S. soldiers accused in crimes or civil disputes. "We're taking long-term harm for short-term expediency," Mr. Rubin said.

While CPA missteps may fade, U.S. policy is still not geared toward helping the nation build unity, according to critics. "What I do worry about is the United States has this tendency to talk about-instead of an Iraqi strategy-a Sunni strategy and a Shia strategy," Mr. Rubin said. "They're relying too much on communalism."

Such divisions threaten even the cherished goal of January elections. Although Iraqis long to vote for their own leaders, no one seems to know just how the voting will work. Islamists favor proportional representation, in which parties, rather than individuals, win seats in parliament based on the number of votes they receive. Others like Mr. Qanbar prefer a system similar to that in the United States, where each electoral district sends a single representative to the national legislature.

No matter which system prevails, Iraqis know the January elections-like the June handover-won't bring immediate peace and prosperity. They'll have to endure more "business as usual" before their investment in democracy pays off.

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