Who Will Call the Shots in Iraq?

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DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

THE PLANNERS: Brahimi and Bremer prepare for June 30th

The Bush administration's battle to win international backing for its Iraq plan will hinge on how it resolves the tension between Iraqi sovereignty and U.S. security control. In his speech Monday aimed at reassuring a domestic audience increasingly skeptical over his handling of Iraq, President Bush vowed both to transfer "full sovereignty" to an Iraqi provisional government on June 30, and to maintain 138,000 U.S. troops (or, possibly, more) in Iraq "under American command." U.S. officials have also insisted, up to now, that American officers will have command responsibility for the Iraqi security forces. But sovereignty is like pregnancy — you either are or you aren't, because sovereignty means nothing less than final decision-making authority over all matters of state and the maintenance of security within the borders of a given nation state. If sovereignty is indeed to be transferred on June 30, then any U.S. or other foreign military formations in the country will have to submit to the political will of the sovereign Iraqi government.

The major question being asked by both Iraqis and much of the international community now is whether the provisional government that takes over on June 30 will have veto power over U.S. military actions in their country. Would the Iraqi provisional government, for example, be able to stop U.S. operations of the type mounted recently at Fallujah and Najaf, both of which were strongly condemned even by members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council? Yes it would, according to Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair. He said today that the Iraqi authority would exercise political control over major operations of Coalition forces, and added that his answer also described the position of the U.S. But within hours, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared to dismiss Blair’s answer, stressing that U.S. forces would answer to U.S. commanders, and that although they would consult with the Iraqi government, any time the two sides were in conflict the U.S. forces would do whatever they deemed necessary to protect themselves. The appearance of discord between London and Washington on this question certainly won’t help them persuade more skeptical members of the Security Council such as France and Russia.

Iraqis have a substantially different view of the nature of the security problem in their country from the one President Bush outlined. "Coalition forces and the Iraqi people have the same enemies," said President Bush, "the terrorists, illegal militia and Saddam loyalists, who stand between the Iraqi people and their future as a free nation." He suggested that after June 30, "when (Iraqis) patrol the streets of Baghdad or engage radical militias they will be fighting for their own country." But engaging "radical militias" has been very much an American idea, rather than an Iraqi one. So strong was Iraqi opposition to the U.S. offensive at Fallujah that up to half of the Iraqi troops sent there disobeyed deployment orders, and at least one politician resigned from the Governing Council. Later, a broad cross-section of Iraqi politicians warned that the U.S. military campaign against Moqtada Sadr and his supporters was creating more of a problem than Sadr himself represented.

Even the most moderate Iraqi politicians have tended to see U.S. military action as part of the problem. President Bush doesn't tell his audience the whole story when he notes, in reference to Sadr's militia, that "ordinary Iraqis have marched in protest against the militants." It is certainly true that the confrontations in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala prompted thousands of Shiites to march demanding that Sadr's Mehdi army withdraw from those cities — but in most cases, those protesters were equally, if not more, insistent that the U.S. troops withdraw, too.

Putting U.S. and Coalition troops under the political control of an Iraqi government could substantially alter the nature and definition of their mission, and would certainly be counterintuitive to the way the Bush administration has conducted its national security policy in the past. At the same time, launching major combat operations without the explicit authorization of the Iraqi interim government would drastically undermine the credibility of such a government in the eyes of its own people. But somewhere between the two poles are the solutions being developed on the ground by combat commanders — solutions that are often somewhat discordant with the rhetoric out of Washington. President Bush, for example, rails against "illegal militias" and envisages Iraqi security forces fighting shoulder to shoulder with Americans to root them out. But "illegal militia" is a slippery and subjective category in Iraq, where every major political party has its own armed formation. The Kurdish "peshmerga" forces that fought alongside the U.S. from the beginning have been "legal" all along; the Iran-trained Badr brigade was initially regarded with hostility by the U.S. but is now recognized as an important force for stability in places such as Najaf.

In the standoff at Fallujah, U.S. officers recognized that the insurgents, led by former Baathist officers, appeared to have significant popular support in the town. Instead of trying to destroy them, U.S. commanders cut a deal with local Iraqi leaders to put many of the same insurgents in charge of security under the rubric of a new Iraqi security force working in cooperation with the Marines. A number of reports now suggest that a similar deal is about to be struck with the Sadrists. The U.S. would withdraw from the shrine cities, Moqtada Sadr's militia would be turned into a political party and some of its fighters would be incorporated into the Iraqi security forces. Although the U.S. had previously demanded that Sadr be taken into custody to stand trial over his alleged involvement in the killing of a rival cleric last year, the reported deal would delay any arrest and prosecution until after June 30, when it would be up to a new Iraqi authority to pursue.

The reasons for cutting deals with both the insurgents in Fallujah and the Sadrists at Najaf and elsewhere is that the essential requirement of the U.S. for the June 30 handover is a modicum of calm. If Coalition forces wage battles of the type that have raged in Baghdad's Shiite slums and across the south in recent weeks, Iraqis will have a hard time believing that anything has changed with the hand-over. U.S. officers running the war on the ground appear to have concluded some time ago that it is unrealistic to imagine that the insurgents can be eliminated, in light of the measure of popular support they enjoy. Instead, the focus has shifted to stability — and persuading Iraq's armed formations to look to the political process to pursue their aims.

June 30 is simply meant to install a caretaker government with a six-month lifespan, whose primary purpose is to organize elections for December or January. U.S. commanders on the ground would prefer to see the Baathists and the Sadrists competing at the ballot box than taking pot shots at it. And there's good reason to believe that can be achieved in the case of Sadr, at least, who has long embraced Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's demand for elections. The firebrand cleric has perfected the art of campaigning for Shiite popular support by attacking the Americans — the U.S. was late in recognizing that far from isolating him, American military action against Sadr was actually boosting his popularity. Current opinion surveys in Iraq find Sadr ranking second among Iraqi politicians in popular support with upward of 30 percent.

The success of the five-point exit strategy outlined by President Bush depends, at the first hurdle, on being able to satisfy both UN Security Council member states, and the Iraqis themselves, that the U.S. intends to begin a genuine ceding of control over events in Iraq on June 30. That question will be answered, first and foremost, in the relationship between a new Iraqi political authority and the U.S. armies that remain on its turf. Right now, that relationship remains to be defined. And each potential answer to the question carries its own substantial package of risks.