The image of Iraq's future being put back in Iraqi hands on the basis of a unanimous UN vote offers important reassurance to an American electorate that has grown increasingly anxious to see the U.S. mission in Iraq completed. And by making a number of important concessions to achieve UN support, the administration has improved the prospects for greater burden-sharing by other armed forces the French look set to block Bush's efforts to bring NATO in, but the administration may be able to persuade some Muslim countries such as Pakistan to send troops. That leaves little ground for presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry to claim as the basis of an alternative Iraq policy without conceding anything to Kerry, the Bush administration has effectively pursued many of the policy remedies the Democrat has advocated. White House strategists will clearly be hoping now that as long as a major upsurge of violence is avoided over the next five months, Iraq could be neutralized as an election issue.
The new international consensus on Iraq is a product of Washington moving inexorably over the past year to revise its own plans in the direction of relinquishing control over Iraq's political and economic future. Originally, the Bush administration had appointed its administrator for Iraq, J. Paul Bremer, to manage a three-year program of remaking Iraq under U.S. tutelage, with the UN confined to the role of humanitarian NGO and occasional consultant. But the realities on the ground forced repeated revisions to that plan. It became clear to the U.S. military that the violent insurgencies in the Sunni triangle and among the followers of Shiite firebrand Moqtada Sadr were too deeply rooted in their communities to be eradicated by military means. And the unyielding demand for elections by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, who insisted that neither Bremer's occupation authority or any Iraqi government it appointed could legitimately decide on a constitution, eventually forced Bremer and his bosses in Washington to bring in the UN to design a transition plan.
The new UN consensus is based on the premise of a genuine and immediate restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. To get there, the Bush administration had to let go of the idea of Iraq as a kind of laboratory in which the occupation authority could slowly nurture a democratic, market-oriented, pro-U.S. and Israel-friendly system of government that would serve as a model for remaking the entire region. Instead, full sovereignty is being handed to an interim structure whose primary mandate is to hold elections within six months the new Iraq that emerges from the current process will be more like an expression of the balance of political forces among Iraqi people themselves, and unlikely to be any more pro-U.S. or Israel-friendly than most of its neighbors.
The recent revisions to the transition plan have significantly eroded Paul Bremer's ability to influence the outcome of the process. The latest UN resolution, for example, makes no mention of the Transitional Administrative Law, the interim constitution painstakingly brokered by Bremer. And that's no oversight: Ayatollah Sistani had specifically petitioned the UN to warn against recognizing the document, which he rejects as the work of an occupying authority and therefore as having no legitimate standing. Sistani's objections are not simply to the process by which the interim constitution was adopted; he has forcefully rejected its provision for a de facto veto power over any new constitution by organized minorities such as the Kurds or the Shiites. For the same reason, Iraq's Kurdish parties, who want to maintain the de facto autonomy verging on independence of their region, are livid, and have warned that they may boycott next January's election if their autonomy is not recognized. The possibility of Shiite-Kurdish conflict is growing, but the transfer of sovereignty makes finding a solution to such a conflict increasingly a purely Iraqi problem.
Perhaps rushing to leave his imprint on post-June 30 Iraq as the hand-over nears, Bremer on Monday signed a decree forbidding Moqtada Sadr from standing for elected office in Iraq for three years, as punishment for maintaining an "illegal militia." And while the interim government has clearly stated its intention to outlaw all armed forces outside of official control, there's little reason to believe that after June 30 it will pay any heed to Bremer directives on matters such as Moqtada Sadr particularly when they make no sense in light of its own plans to create a new political consensus among Iraqis. Indeed, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi this week specifically called on Sadr to disband his militia and instead compete in the realm of politics and stand for election next year. The same message, no doubt, will have been transmitted by Sistani, who met with Sadr last weekend, signaling the extent to which the upstart firebrand's stature has been enhanced, rather than diminished, by the confrontation with the U.S. in which he lost hundreds of men. The fact that Moqtada Sadr looks likely to be a factor in Iraqi politics long after Paul Bremer ceases to be one is a sharp indicator of the policy shifts implicit in the current hand-over plan.
In order to get the UN resolution passed in time for the G8 summit, the U.S. was forced to concede to the principle of Iraqi security forces being under Iraqi government control. That's not as much as a sacrifice as it seems; the manner in which the U.S. military has conducted itself in the wake of Fallujah and in its search for a political solution to the standoff with Sadr supporters suggests that it has no inclination now to launch large-scale offensives. Its mission, increasingly, is safeguarding Iraq's government and infrastructure until such time as those functions can be assumed by Iraqi security forces. The fact that the interim government did not demand that the UN resolution grant it veto power over U.S. military actions in Iraq is a result of understandings achieved between Allawi's government and the Americans for now, at least, they appear to be on the same page regarding the nature of the U.S. military role there.
Of course, the more hard-line insurgent element and also the foreign jihadists may try to launch large-scale attacks against U.S. forces in order to provoke large-scale military retaliation that could create a crisis for the new government. But those in the interim government have made clear that they seek to reduce the level of violence precisely by drawing as many as possible of those currently waging insurgencies into the political process.
The immediate daily reality for U.S. troops in Iraq may not change too much after June 30. But the sovereignty agreement reached at the UN sends a powerful signal both to Iraqis and to Americans that the U.S. is inexorably loosening its grip on Iraq. That will be helpful to the Iraqi leaders slated to face their electorate in January, and also to an American president who faces his own in November.