Rumsfeld's Baghdad Worries

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In sending Donald Rumsfeld to read Iraq's new government the riot act over plans to purge former Baathists from its security services, the Bush administration clearly intended to sound a warning to the democratically elected government of Iraq. The Defense Secretary's message to Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari was simple: Don't touch the security forces, and the ministries that oversee them.

Rumsfeld's concern: The Shiite alliance that won the election has openly proclaimed its intention to conduct a wholesale purge of the new Iraqi security and intelligence services of many of the former Baathists quietly reinstated by the U.S. and the government of former prime minister Iyad Allawi last year to help fight the insurgency. The new government also wants to take control of those ministries, which could mean that some of the U.S.-appointed technocrats and commanders in various security structures will lose their jobs — a prospect Rumsfeld has been increasingly anxious about. Three weeks ago, he warned the winners of Iraq's election to "be darned careful about making a lot of changes" to strengthen their own representation in the security ministries, because "the United States has got too much invested and too much committed and too many lives at stake for people to be careless about that."

His concern may stem from the manner in which Iraq's election has transformed the distribution of power in Iraq. The U.S. remains in control of the security forces, both Iraqi and American, but it no longer controls the political space in the way that it did when the government was in the hands of U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer and, subsequently, a U.S.-picked leadership. The election produced a new political leadership over which the U.S. has very little influence, and which may differ substantially with Washington on a range of issues, including — perhaps most importantly — the training, equipping and deployment of the Iraqi security forces, and the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Last Saturday's demonstration in Baghdad by tens of thousands of Shiites demanding immediate U.S. withdrawal was a sharp reminder of the pressure that will be placed on the leaders of the new government both by their own Shiite base and by the Sunni community they are energetically wooing. Such pressure is likely to grow, and any ambition the Pentagon may have harbored to turn Iraq into a long-term base at the heart of the Middle East to replace Saudi Arabia may now be beyond reach. (Evidence of such ambitions abounds, from the construction of 14 "enduring" U.S. military bases in Iraq, a development highlighted by Senator John Kerry during last year's presidential race that went unchallenged by the administration, to remarks by the Pentagon's first post-Saddam administrator, General Jay Garner, that the U.S. priority in Iraq was to win basing rights for a long-term U.S. military presence that he compared to the role played by the Philippines as a coaling station to the U.S. Navy over a century. Iraqi democracy, however, appears to have rendered them moot.) There are more immediate concerns, however, than long-term basing rights.

The relationship between the U.S. military command and the new Iraqi leadership remains something of a gray area, given the outcome of the election. Right now there is no "status of forces" agreement covering the conduct of U.S. forces in a sovereign Iraq, and some leaders of the Shiite alliance have suggested they will press for such an agreement.

The U.S. is overseeing the training, equipping and deployment of the Iraqi security forces directly, but also relies on the fact that the relevant government ministries governing the new Iraqi forces are currently controlled by its allies. It's not clear what might change if elements less friendly to the U.S. take charge of those ministries, and that's precisely what Rumsfeld hopes to avoid.

Rumsfeld has said that the U.S. would remain in Iraq until the insurgency is defeated, although a number of U.S. officers on the ground have previously indicated that the insurgency is likely to persist as long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq. But the new government may have its own ideas over how to deal with the problem. President Jalal Talabani last week proposed that an amnesty be offered to all insurgents except those who have targeted Iraqi civilians in terror attacks, leaving open the possibility that insurgents who had killed American troops could face no consequences. And government leaders are reportedly in discussions with some insurgent leaders over a proposal to spare Saddam Hussein the death penalty as one of their conditions for laying down their arms. When the Allawi government proposed a similar amnesty last July, U.S. ambassador John Negroponte warned that such a deal would be unacceptable to Washington, and Allawi quickly backtracked, eventually offering a relatively meaningless amnesty only for those who hadn't attacked Americans. This time around, however, the U.S. may have neither the inclination, nor the means, to interfere.

Rumsfeld's terse tone, and the testy response it elicited from some Shiite leaders underscores the difficulties the U.S. will face in negotiating a relationship with an independent Iraqi government in the months ahead. The Defense Secretary went to Baghdad demanding continuity with the transition begun by U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer, but the elections turned out to be a break with what had gone before. The resulting government won't be much impressed by Rumsfeld's warnings against corruption and cronyism; after all, those are qualities Iraqis have long complained were all too present in the U.S.-installed Allawi administration.

Moreover, the idea of a U.S. war leader arriving in Baghdad to lecture the new government on what's good for Iraq is, to say the least, somewhat ill-considered. The overriding priority of the new government is to prove that it is independent of the U.S. It's going to face increasing pressure to ask the Americans to leave — even though it still needs them for its own security. The last thing the new Iraqi leadership can afford to be seen doing is snapping to attention when Don Rumsfeld barks commands.