Escape from Baghdad

The country that U.S. authorities are hastily handing over to the Iraqis is more of a bloody mess than ever.

Published June 29, 2004 11:10PM (EDT)

This time there was no "Mission Accomplished" banner flying high.

Forsaking public, self-congratulatory speeches, the much-anticipated transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people did not take place among pomp and circumstance, nor was it captured for history by a throng of journalists. Instead, the transfer occurred nearly in secret inside a well-secured building behind the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, witnessed by a handful of participants in the five-minute service. Coming off a weekend of unending violence, during which more than 100 Iraqis were killed by terrorists protesting the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the pageantry of a ceremony on June 30 suddenly seemed less inviting to both the United States and its Iraqi partners in the interim government, and the transfer of power was quickly moved up to Monday.

It was just the latest U.S. plan for the Iraqi occupation to go awry. That sovereignty is being passed to Iraq against a backdrop of violence so extreme that martial law is being seriously discussed by the new Iraqi government highlights how poor the postwar conditions are and how big of a challenge the new government faces. Indeed, the handover occurs as a wide range of foreign policy experts have concluded that the plan to invade Iraq as well as the postwar-construction phase have failed on nearly every front.

"The violence is going to be the biggest problem. That, and the country breaking into civil war," says James Bamford, author of the new book "A Pretext to War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies."

"The dissolution of the [Coalition Provisional Authority] and the transfer of power to Iraq are long overdue and a good thing," says Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report. "But I'm not sure Iraq is any further along the road toward general recovery."

Symbolically, Monday's handover clearly had more meaning in Washington, where President Bush, facing reelection, is anxious to distance himself from the woes -- and responsibilities -- of Iraq, than it had in Baghdad, where Iraqis continue to struggle with an ever deteriorating security situation, regardless of which government is deemed to be in charge.

"The Iraqi people have their country back," President Bush declared in Istanbul, Turkey, where he is attending a NATO summit. "We have kept our word." Ordinary Iraqi citizens and others critical of the U.S. occupation, however, suggest that the violence-riddled country Bush has handed back to Iraqis is in far worse condition than it was before the war. As one Baghdad literature student told a reporter over the weekend, "The security situation seems to be getting worse day by day. Our lives are much worse than in the time of Saddam."

"I think many Iraqis, outside those of Kurdistan, would say they're getting a worse country back than they had before the invasion," adds Toensing. "It's utter chaos."

"We have heard over and over again that Iraq is turning the corner," Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted Monday during an online discussion hosted by the Washington Post. "First, when the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Firdous Square, we were told that there would be a relatively smooth occupation. After the insurgency began, the administration believed that once Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed, stability would return. When that didn't happen, Americans were led to believe that once Saddam was apprehended, the situation in Iraq would improve. Now, it is the handover of sovereignty. I certainly hope things will improve, but a variety of factors -- notably, the continued insurgency -- are a great cause for concern."

Here's a small portion of an AP weekend dispatch that describes the unrestrained, yet commonplace violence that continues to haunt Iraq:

"A taxi apparently filled with weapons and ammunition blew up a street about 250 yards from one of the political party offices that was attacked earlier, witnesses reported. Elsewhere, insurgents killed two Iraqi National Guardsmen in an ambush in Mahmoudiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. A police officer was also killed in a separate attack Saturday, said the director of the Mahmoudiyah general hospital, Dawoud al-Taei. A car bomb exploded Saturday in the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil, injuring the culture minister of the pro-American Kurdistan Democratic Party and killing his bodyguard and injuring 18 people -- four of them children."

The notion that the newborn Iraq government will be able to root out powerful insurgents, even though 138,000 U.S. troops have failed at that task over many months, strikes many observers as fantasy. "I think their chances are 20-to-80 for success," says Toensing.

Administration officials deny that fear about a possible terrorist attack on Wednesday prompted the ceremony to be moved up two days. An anonymous senior State Department official, during a Monday background briefing, said, "All the critics, months ago, were saying, you're never going to make the June 30th deadline, you're going to have to push it back, you should push it back, just push it back. And, in fact, what they're demonstrating to the Iraqi people and to the world is, no, we're ready, and we're ready ahead of schedule.'"

Whether or not there was a connection to fears of terrorism, another reason to move up the transfer of power, says Amy Hawthorne, a Middle Eastern expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, may have been so that it would occur while the NATO summit was taking place -- at which Bush pressed allies to play a bigger role in the reconstruction of Iraq, specifically in providing training for Iraqi security forces.

Bush can use all the allies he can get. Monday's transfer of power comes at a time when a majority of Americans say the war in Iraq was a mistake and that it has made the United States less safe, not more secure. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released Monday shows that by a margin of 2-to-1, Americans do not think that the turnover of political control to Iraqis is a sign of success for the Bush administration because Iraq's long-term stability remains in serious question. Sixty percent of those polled doubt that security will be established in Iraq in the next year.

The view from within Iraq is even more pessimistic. While a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll in April indicated that 71 percent of Iraqis saw the U.S.-led coalition as "occupiers," a poll conducted in May for the CPA shows grimmer numbers: 92 percent of Iraqis consider the U.S.-led forces to be "occupiers." And 55 percent of Iraqis told pollsters they would feel safer if U.S. troops left immediately.

Bamford says that's exactly what the United States has to do -- pull the troops out -- if the new Iraqi government is going to stand a chance of succeeding. "As long as Americans are there, there will not be a reduction, but an expansion, of the violence. It's Americans' presence in Iraq that's causing the violence. The United States needs to define an exit strategy: [Now] that we've successfully transferred power, we're going to pull out 20,000 troops per month while bringing in other allied forces to replace them. What's the alternative? Stay forever? Right now it's a quagmire, with no end in sight. Vietnam was the same way."

Charles Maynes, president of the Eurasia Foundation and former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, pinpoints the dilemma: "The new government depends on the United States for its military power, yet it lacks legitimacy so long as this is true. The longer the U.S. remains in Iraq, the more difficult the position of the new government is likely to be. The reason is that the U.S. military, to defend itself, will have to continue killing Iraqis, a perfectly legitimate act of self-defense for which the local authorities will be blamed."

A sovereign government without complete sovereignty, let alone its own army, battling insurrection and possible civil war. Says Hawthorne at Carnegie, "There are all kinds of land [mines] ... ahead for this government."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------