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What the Iraq Handover Means for the U.S.

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MURAD SEZER/AP

Followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr protest in Baghdad

Two things are certain about the June 30th U.S. hand-over of sovereignty in Iraq: Yesterdayĺs violence is a harbinger of the surge that the Coalition had predicted, and security control in Iraq will remain the responsibility of the U.S. military. After that, things become less certain. The identity and nature of the government to whom the U.S. will cede formal authority on July 1 remains to be determined. So does the fate of the interim constitution brokered by U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer, in the face of a mounting mass protest movement among the majority Shiite population. But even as U.S. and United Nations officials huddle with Iraqi politicians to find a political formula broadly acceptable among the country's fractious constituencies, attacks by insurgents — five U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday by a roadside bomb west of Baghdad, while four U.S. contractors were killed in Fallujah by a crowd that mutilated their bodies — have made March the second bloodiest month of the occupation.

The current transition plan calls for the U.S. to hand power to an interim government on June 30, pending democratic elections to be held by January 31 of next year. But the makeup of such an interim government remains hotly contested: When the June 30 date was first announced, the plan had been to hold town hall-style caucus meetings of selected notables to pick an interim government, but that proposal was shot down by the Shiite majority after its spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani insisted that democratic elections were the only way to achieve a legitimate government. Because such elections could not be organized in time, the interim government is likely to be chosen from some version of the current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, but with a stronger executive — right now, the suggestion appears to be some form of presidential troika, whose members would be drawn from the three major ethnic groups, and a prime minister to run the government. But mutual suspicion among Iraq's various ethnic political factions is growing, and there is currently no consensus on the organization of interim political power.

Challenges Ahead

The most serious obstacle may be the mounting suspicion among the Shiite clergy that the political deals being brokered by Washington are designed to dilute the power of their two-thirds demographic majority. That suspicion is also fueling a growing willingness to directly challenge Bremer's transition plans. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has already launched a mass campaign against the interim constitution, on the grounds that it grants minorities veto power over a future permanent constitution. Currently, Sistani's campaign is confined to agitating against the document and collecting signatures on a petition, but supporters warn that street demonstrations could be next. Sistani has, thus far, avoided calling his supporters out onto the street to challenge the interim arrangements for fear of fomenting chaos. But militancy is rising among the Shiite faithful, most visibly among the followers of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The U.S. on Monday closed down Sadr's weekly newspaper for two months, on the grounds that it spreads false allegations that constitute incitement to violence — for example, accusing U.S. forces of firing rockets at a mosque. But that may be grist to the mill of a man with his own militia who is agitating for direct confrontation as the best path for pursuing Shiite objectives. Moqtada, in a provocative sermon last Friday, praised the September 11 attacks as "a gift from God," and has blamed the closure of his magazine on its critical coverage of the assassination by Israel last week of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin — an event that sparked universal condemnation among Iraqis.

Rising Violence, Limited Handover

Shiite hostility to the U.S. brokered interim constitution is unlikely to end with the June 30 hand-over; on the contrary, it's more likely to escalate as Shiite clerics use their mass following to pressure whatever an interim government to accede to majority rule. It's a lot easier for the Shiite street to challenge an interim political authority that emerges from the IGC, a body of, at best, limited legitimacy among Iraqis, than it is to challenge the occupation authorities.

By the same token, The Iraqi insurgency based in the Sunni heartland but operating throughout Iraq shares the incentive to intensify its activities in the wake of the hand-over. While Coalition officials had warned that violence would intensify as insurgents sought to disrupt the transition on June 30, there's no reason to expect an ebb after that. Indeed, if one of the insurgents' goals is to stop the emergence of a democratic Iraq, they would likely be planning to do everything in their power to delay or prevent the elections scheduled for the coming winter. A UN technical team in Iraq warned this week that the current security situation may make elections difficult, and stressed that for a credible poll to be held by next January, an electoral commission will have to agree on its terms and begin the practical work of planning by the end of May. While the Shiite leadership will be pressing for that work to proceed as quickly as possible, their hostility to the minority powers built into the interim constitution may give Sunni and Kurdish leaders an incentive to extend the interim. And the insurgents will be doing their utmost to extend any delay — they'll likely take heart from the example of Afghanistan, where the ongoing security crisis has hobbled voter registration efforts, forcing acting President Hamid Karzai to announce last week that elections scheduled for June will be postponed for at least three months, a delay that analysts believe will have to be further extended unless substantial numbers of foreign troops are added to those already in Afghanistan.

Unresolved political conflicts and the potential for ongoing turmoil simply underscore the central role that the U.S. intends to play in Iraq long after the CPA morphs into the world's biggest U.S. embassy. Indeed, the sovereignty being transferred on July 1 is partial rather than complete. The power of any nation state ultimately derives from the monopoly of armed force it maintains within its national borders. By that measure, the de facto power in Iraq will remain in U.S. hands even after June 30, for the simple reason that the most credible power on the ground will remain the U.S. troop contingent of some 100,000. Those troops will not be subject to the political authority of an interim Iraqi government, but will instead derive their legal mandate from UN Resolution 1511 passed last October to provide for security in Iraq at least until the end of next year. Of course, a "status of forces" agreement could be negotiated with a new Iraqi authority, but the Pentagon isn't banking on it right now. Moreover, even while the interim constitution upholds the principle of the newly constituted Iraqi security forces to be subject to civilian control, in reality the Iraqi forces are to remain under the command of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.

Indeed, Ambassador Bremer has moved to "insulate" the new Iraqi security forces from the country's fractious politics by creating an elaborate Defense Ministry, modeled on the Pentagon, and run by a Bremer-appointed former Kurdish militia commander even after the June 30 transfer. A new government, of course, will appoint a Defense Minister, but the staff of his ministry will have already been appointed by Bremer and will not be easily changed. U.S. officials told the Washington Post that the goal of this arrangement was "to stabilize the new military by making it difficult to remove anyone but the minister," and in this way to "insulate it from Iraq's fractious domestic politics." While that does protect the military from the whims of politicians, it may also limit civilian control. And it is not yet clear how the militias currently maintained by a number of political factions might be integrated into the new arrangement.

In short, the military and political challenges in Iraq after June 30 — and the burden those place on the U.S. and its Coalition partners — may not be that dissimilar from those that currently prevail. Indeed, the summer hand-over will in many respects be more symbolic than substantive: The work of securing and stabilizing Iraq, and charting a course around multiple perils towards some form of democracy will likely preoccupy the U.S. and both its allies and enemies in Iraq long after June 30.