Jewish World Review April 8, 2004 / 17 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline? | Are things falling apart in Iraq? And if so, should the transfer of sovereignty be delayed beyond the Bush administration's current June 30 deadline?

The United States is now engaged in two fairly significant military operations: the pacification of Fallujah, and the capture of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and suppression of his armed rebellion against the occupation.

It would be more accurate, however, to say that things have never really come together in Iraq than to say that they are now falling apart. The nature of the two threats illustrates that point.

Were it not for the U.S. occupation, the two rebellious groups might very well be killing each other rather than Americans.

In Fallujah, the uprising is from Sunni Baathist restorationists. Shiite Sadr has close ties to Iran and wants to establish a comparably fundamentalist theocratic state in Iraq.

Undoubtedly, the majority of Iraqis want neither a Baathist restoration nor an Iranian-style fundamentalist theocracy.

But the condemnation of these two movements comes almost exclusively from the United States, not from Iraqis who want a different future than they would bring about.

Most telling is the reaction of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, by far the most influential Shiite cleric. He reportedly does not favor a theocratic state such as advocated by Sadr or confrontation as a strategy.

Yet he has not condemned Sadr's militancy. In fact, he has said that Sadr's cause is just.

Simply put, too many Iraqis still see this as the U.S.'s fight rather than their own.

You often hear, even from initial opponents of the war, that the United States cannot now "fail" in Iraq. But that's not an attitude necessarily conducive to our long-term national interest.

There can be different opinions about the extent to which Saddam Hussein constituted a threat to the United States. But whatever the level of the threat, it is now gone.

Moreover, whatever emerges in the wake of Saddam is highly unlikely to poise anywhere near the threat that he did.

A functioning democracy has decent roots in the northern Kurdish territory. A Baathist restoration is highly unlikely. The majority Shiites don't appear to want a fundamentalist theocracy.

A neo-colonial role in Iraq is not in the interests of the United States.

Our occupation breeds anti-American sentiment in Iraq and elsewhere in the region and the world. The longer we are an occupying force, the more we become a terrorist target.

Iraq has been a costly undertaking. The United States has already spent $155 billion on the war and reconstruction. Another $50 billion is expected to be spent this year.

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A colonial occupation until Iraq is unquestionably "ready" to be a unified democracy would cost the United States $50 billion to $100 billion a year and make us less safe. Moreover, how long it would take and the prospects for success are highly uncertain.

A pathway toward a unified, democratic Iraq has been established with the transitional administrative law adopted last month by the Iraqi Governing Council. It bridges the ethnic and religious differences in the country with a highly decentralized governmental structure, and ties the country together with oil revenues.

It calls for an elected national government by January 2005, and a new, voter-approved constitution by the end of that year.

The first step is the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government by June 30. The U.N., which Sistani appears more receptive to than the U.S., is helping to develop a configuration that will be acceptable to the various factions.

What would be made better by delaying this transfer of authority and the U.S. remaining as a governing, occupying power?

Clearly delay wouldn't reduce anti-American agitation. The security challenge would likely amplify, not diminish.

Nor is it clear how the United States remaining the governing authority in Iraq improves the prospects for a successful democracy, unless a long period of dominant colonial rule is envisioned.

While the U.S. will remain a security force in the country, transferring sovereignty will reduce our freedom of operation. An interim Iraqi government may very well be willing to risk greater civil unrest for a lighter U.S. presence.

The United States may think that's unwise. But it's not our country.

Iraq's future is uncertain. But the sooner Iraqis begin determining it the better, for them and for us.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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