'Here You Go. Here's Iraq. Take It'
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'Here You Go. Here's Iraq. Take It'
`We threw' power at them: U.S. official
But much work got lost in transition
by Mitch Potter
BAGHDAD—Leaning in close, the mid-level American administrator speaks more in a hiss than a whisper. His tone is confessional, drenched in frustration.
"We didn't hand over power to the Iraqis. We threw it at them," he confides, casting a guilty glance toward the many eyes filling the chandelier-lit room. Nobody else heard him. Good. This kind of talk could cost him his job.
"There was no orderly transition. Nothing gradual. Just, `Here you go. Here's Iraq. Take it'."
"None of us had any idea sovereignty was going to switch two days early," he continues, speaking on the promise of anonymity. "So we didn't even get the last contracts finished. It was chaos. More than a billion dollars in plans never went through. Huge appropriations were just left on the table, undone."
It is dinner hour at the Great Hall of Saddam Hussein's presidential palace, deep within Baghdad's hermetically sealed Green Zone. Barely two weeks earlier, America's presence here was downsized, on paper, from occupational power to invited guest, by decree of the United Nations and the interim Iraqi regime taking its place.
On the surface, little appears to have changed since that surprise ceremony of June 28, a low-key series of handshakes marking the jumped-up transfer of sovereignty. Suicide bombs and assassinations continue as before. The same 160,000 coalition troops remain spread across Iraq, as before.
Even here, in the U.S.-led coalition's most sumptuous improvised dining hall, the same several hundred faces — diplomats, Pentagon administrators, military — mingle and munch through another contract-catered meal. As before.
But the truth of the matter is Baghdad is no longer theirs. Led by Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the emerging Iraqi regime has been busy turning the paper transfer into something quite substantial. Ministry by ministry, they are taking back the country in a concerted effort to move forward the Iraqi way.
Whether that way, the Iraqi way, leads anywhere near the promise of freedom and democracy upon which last year's war was fought now stands as the paramount question.
If it appears the U.S.-led coalition is easing up on the ambitious, if naïve, theoretical underpinnings of Operation Iraqi Freedom in order to find an exit strategy, the long-term results remain unclear.
"As a new government, we must gain strength by showing strength," is how Adnan Hadi al-Assadi, Iraq's interim deputy interior minister, explains the regime's race to absorb all available power.
"In the months leading up to the handover, there were a lot of frustrations. We stood by without much say, objecting as bad decisions were made," Assadi said in an interview. "At one point, (then U.S. envoy Paul) Bremer committed more than a billion Iraqi dollars to Jordan in a project to train Iraqi troops. Jordan! A country whose forces only fought one war in their history (1967's Six Day War). And they fought it badly. They are supposed to show Iraqis how to fight?
"Now, we are beginning to make our own decisions. Now that we have some authority, we want our ministries to handle everything."
The soft-spoken fear among those letting go is that the new Baghdad may well emerge as every bit the omnipotent, power-wielding monolith it was before the war. However clumsy the effort, the U.S.-led coalition clearly had hoped all these months of idea-farming might gently nudge Iraq toward an almost Canadian model of decentralized democracy.
But the new government's first instinct, clearly, has been to revert to the tried-and-true formula of the larger Arab world — aggressively corralling power toward a strong (and strong-armed) central government, with the powers of Baghdad second to none.
(Allawi himself executed as many as six suspected insurgents just days before the handover, the Sydney Morning Herald reports, citing two alleged witnesses.)
One coalition source recalls a deputy minister appearing at his desk in the Green Zone the morning after the handover.
"Our team spent six months building an infrastructure in the regions to implement our program. But he just stood there and said: `We want everything back in the ministry. In Baghdad. Now.'
"I realized I had no choice but to say, `Okay.' Everything we worked toward was over in one word."
The centerpiece of the emerging regime's muscle-flexing was the July 7 announcement of an Order for Safeguarding National Security, in which Allawi and his closest deputies claimed the right to impose a sweeping range of emergency powers.
The right to random searches, seizures, closures, eavesdropping, curfews — all tools of the modern police state — are now in the hands of the small and unelected Baghdad leadership; and in the fine print, the establishment of a half-dozen new security agencies, each with a name, acronym and marching orders reminiscent of the decidedly undemocratic Mideast norm.
With near-unanimity, Iraqis welcomed the crackdown. Whatever doubts they may have about who really is in charge, the sight of Iraqi leaders standing up and announcing Iraqi solutions to more than 15 chaotic months of lawless behavior won instant favor on the streets of Baghdad.
The response spoke volumes about how dramatically downsized the expectations of Iraqis have become. In April, 2003, the nation, then still numb from a generation of U.N. sanctions interspersed with three wars, was giddy with the promise that life was about to improve. If America has the technology of pinpoint bombing, surely it also has the technology to bring instant affluence, the thinking seemed to go.
But that better life remains a distant illusion. Iraqis today seem grimly resigned to buy into anyone with the leadership to restore law and order. Never mind freedom and democracy, whatever that is.
If it takes the re-entry of some former Baathist apparatchiks, the reappointment of some Mukhabarat security agents and the eventual revival of Saddam's former army commanders to bring it about, don't expect Iraqis to object. A state of order, the hallmark of all that was before the first bomb landed last year, is what they now crave most.
Just how far the new government might stray from U.S.-led objectives for postwar Iraq will be measured in the coming months by the degree of acrimony between the two.
Iraqi government insiders are also wary of internal discord over the thorny issue of who among the former Baathists and army officials should be considered for official jobs. Many hold neighboring Arab regimes in utter contempt for allegedly harboring senior exiled former Baathists, who, in turn, are helping to finance the insurgency.
"When it comes to the former regime, the biggest question nobody is asking is why so many of them got away?" one highly placed source with the Iraqi National Congress told the Star in an interview, on condition he not be named. "In some cases, the Americans allowed private jets to be flown into Baghdad right after the war so that senior people with the regime and their families could fly to safety."
An Iraqi government said only Iraqis who had refused Saddam's orders to fight were allowed to flee.
Allawi and his cabinet are acutely aware that each confrontation with the newly inaugurated U.S. and British embassies are likely to improve their standing with Iraqis. But to bite too deeply into the hands that feed the new government could staunch the flow of reconstruction aid upon which the fledgling regime depends.
The other flow in the equation — oil — remains Iraq's greatest irony. Weekly attacks on the country's aging petroleum pipelines have forced the emerging regime to continue spending precious dollars importing oil to meet its needs.
Those attacks continue as intensely as ever, according to one contracted crew chief — a Montrealer by birth — who spent the past 12 weeks working and sleeping at the scenes of 19 different pipeline ruptures.
"It never seemed to get better or worse. We just kept going the whole time. We went from Basra to Mosul. We'd go seven, eight days without a shower to the point where we all stank," said the foreman, who gave his name as "Uncle Al."
"It was unbelievable. Nineteen repairs in 12 weeks. We got mortared, we got RPG-ed (rocket-propelled grenades), we got IED-ed (improvised explosive devices), we took rockets. It was hot the whole time."
During a chance encounter at the departure lounge at Baghdad International Airport, the wiry, gray-haired 60-something "Uncle Al" said his tour was over and no amount of money could bring him back.
He's seen a lot since he left Montreal as a teenager in 1961 to volunteer in the U.S. Air Force. One tour of Vietnam, 1964-65, then a lifetime in the most adventurous ends of the oil patch. He put out fires with the legendary Red Adair, whose exploits John Wayne characterized in the 1968 movie, Hellfighters.
But he can't recall anything as hairy as these past three months: Fire so hot the earth boiled beneath it; on-the-spot repairs amid incoming mortars.
"I've had enough of diving into ditches when things start landing and exploding," he said. "Someone else can do it from now on."
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