Much In Dispute Before Iraq Shift; Tasks Mount in June 30 Handoff
Published on Monday, May 31, 2004 by the Boston Globe
Much In Dispute Before Iraq Shift
Tasks Mount in June 30 Handoff
by Anne Barnard
 

BAGHDAD -- Six weeks ago, the Americans supervising Iraq's Oil Ministry expected to ease toward the June 30 transition to Iraqi sovereignty dotting i's and crossing t's -- putting Iraqi managers through ethics seminars, for instance, and holding a conference to attract foreign investors.

But then, as twin uprisings struck in Fallujah and the Shi'ite Muslim south, attacks on pipelines spiked, forcing one of Iraq's three main refineries to close and driving oil production down 22 percent. The investor conference was postponed, and last week, the British adviser who ran the ethics classes was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his car.

''Now we're back to crisis management," said a senior official of the US-led occupation authority, speaking on condition of anonymity. The ministry is working furiously, he said, to patch the damage, fend off future attacks, and ensure that production is back to speed in time for the handoff of sovereignty.

Before the new Iraqi government takes power in 30 days and is ready to function, there is an enormous amount of work to do. Still to be decided are physical details such as where the new government will meet and fundamental questions about how much power it will have to act on the issues most important to Iraqis: security and the economy.

The country's defense leaders do not know what control, if any, they will have over US troops who will remain on their soil; how many Iraqi soldiers, if any, they will command; or whether they will have any funding that does not depend on the United States.

''To be sovereign, this government has to control security," said Bruska Noori Shaways, secretary general of Iraq's fledgling Defense Ministry, whose crew of 200 employees is undergoing training about the unfamiliar concept of civilians controlling the military.

As US and Iraqi officials wrangle publicly over who will lead the new government, behind the scenes they are hotly debating its defense powers. Even after the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution authorizing the presence of a multinational force, Iraqis want to nail down many more details, Shaways said. Iraqi defense officials want all US military missions approved by an Iraqi-led committee; US commanders resist that. Iraqis want to retain control of some units of the Iraqi Army and police; US commanders want all Iraqi forces under their command.

Iraq's interior minister, Samir Shakir Mahmoud al-Sumaiday, has set an ambitious goal for the Iraqi police to be the ''dominant" and ''most visible" law enforcement power on the streets by June 30, although he acknowledges that the hastily recruited police force needs work before US troops can stop patrolling.

Oil revenues will be the new government's main independent source of the cash it needs to deliver jobs and services and win over skeptical Iraqis. So the Oil Ministry is rushing to repair the sabotage that decreased oil production from 2.5 million to 1.95 million barrels per day in mid-May. And Iraqi officials are fighting for unfettered control of oil revenues, which they will take over June 30 from a US- and British-controlled reconstruction fund; they want to ensure that the international oversight the United States has called for does not hamper their policy options.

Most of Iraq's 26 ministries, from health to water resources, already have been officially dubbed sovereign. The Coalition Provisional Authority advisers who ran them are changing their job titles to ''consultant," albeit powerful consultants given that the United States will control $18 billion in reconstruction aid. But sovereignty for the most crucial departments, including the defense, interior, and oil ministries, has been saved for last.

A flurry of paperwork also must be completed. Dozens of decrees written by the occupation authority, whose Arabic versions will have the force of law, must be retranslated to correct language errors. After a year of vehicular chaos, with new cars going unregistered and traffic violations almost always going unpunished, Iraqis are being called in to reregister their cars.

Then there are the trappings of sovereignty -- not unimportant for Iraqis whose national dignity has been bruised by a year of occupation. A dispute is raging about what Iraq's new flag should look like; one proposed design raised hackles because it lacked the traditional Arab colors of red, black, and green. It also is unclear when the United States will vacate the sprawling presidential palace that became occupation headquarters and will be the temporary home of the enormous US Embassy, or whether it will retain control over the ''Green Zone" around it, a huge swath of downtown Baghdad cordoned off by US guards.

Plans for the home of the new government have not been finalized, but Iraqi officials say it probably will be housed inside the complex that now houses the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Security for some time will still be handled by the Nepalese Ghurka contractors hired by the occupation authority, but Iraqi officials are in a hurry to replace them with newly trained Iraqi police.

But the new government's credibility will stand or fall on whether it can provide security: According to a recent poll by Sadoun Dulame, a sociologist at the Iraq Center for Strategic Studies, 62 percent of Iraqis surveyed said they think the security situation has worsened in the past three months and a large majority think it will improve if US troops take a back seat to Iraqi security forces. So if security improves, Dulame said, Iraqis will be willing to overlook widespread concerns that the government was not elected and has little local base; if not, they will probably turn against it.

Yet the Iraqi government will have few independent tools to provide security.

The Iraqi Army has fewer than 8,000 troops, so taking over from the 138,000 US troops who head the multinational force is clearly a long-term project. Shaways said he expects foreign troops to stay through 2006, by which time the Defense Ministry plans to have trained 80,000 Iraqi troops.

But he still has a long list of things to do before June 30 to assert Iraqi power over the military.

The most burning question is whether Iraqis will have the power to approve or veto US operations -- a sensitive issue because polls have indicated that Iraqis reacted strongly against recent military actions such as the US siege of Fallujah, yet want strong action to make the country secure.

Shaways, a former peshmerga fighter in the Kurdish resistance against Saddam Hussein, wants to see a committee headed by an Iraqi, probably the prime minister, that would authorize any operations. The committee would decide only whether a mission ''is OK to do or not -- not how to do it," Shaways said, emphasizing that US commanders would have operational control of their troops but that Iraqis would define the mission. ''It would give them political cover," he said of the Americans, suggesting they could argue more strongly that they were acting on behalf of Iraqis.

Another issue is the role of the 33,000-strong Iraqi Civil Defense Corps; a debate continues within the ministry, Shaways said, on whether the corps should be more like local police or be deployed across Iraq to quell civil strife.

Also on the to-do list is finding an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman to give regular briefings, replacing US officials as ''the face of Iraqi security," Shaways said.

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