America's Number 1 problem in Iraq is lack of credibility. This is a bigger problem than the escalating insurgency against the occupation. The first feeds the second.
It is, therefore, essential that America hand over power to the Iraqis July 1.
The motivation of George W. Bush does not matter. If he's doing it for his presidential election campaign, so be it.
It also does not matter, for now, whether the new Iraqi government will have the power to exercise the "full sovereignty" he is promising. Iraqis know, as the world knows, that the exercise is symbolic, not substantive.
What does matter is that the government has the imprimatur of the United Nations.
Whoever U.N. special envoy Lakdhar Brahimi picks to take over from the U.S.-run Provisional Authority would be far more acceptable to fellow-Iraqis than anyone associated with the Americans.
Iraqi nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, who yesterday withdrew his name from the list of candidates for prime minister, would have given the first post-war Iraqi administration instant moral authority.
The University of Toronto-trained Shahristani, had the courage to refuse Saddam's orders to make a bomb, a crime for which he was tortured and jailed for 10 years at Abu Ghraib prison.
In his exile years in Iran and England he helped expose Saddam's genocide and assisted Iraqi refugees abroad, especially fellow-Shiites. He worked with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf, who has since emerged as the most authoritative voice of the Iraqi majority.
A Sistani-backed Shahristani government would have been a dream team.
But any new administration's job would be easier if Bush could be more honest.
Will the new Iraqi government have the authority to:
- Control the Iraqi army and police, let alone the American troops?
- Veto ill-advised, self-defeating American military operations?
- Set a date for the departure of American troops?
- Control and manage oil revenues?
- Undo privatization deals as well as the rules favoring American investment?
- Fire the American advisers ensconced in every ministry and replace the pliant Iraqis given long-term appointments?
There was bound to be confusion over such issues, given the chaos, the hurried timetable and the long, rough road ahead: an advisory national council to be named, elections to be held before January, a transitional government to be installed, and a constitution to be ratified in a referendum by the end of 2005 before a truly sovereign and democratic Iraq can emerge.
Yet, it's the double talk emanating out of Washington that's generating the most fog now.
Bush continues to peddle the fiction that he is in Iraq to fight terrorism and enhance America's security.
His talk of a multinational force is similarly duplicitous. So long as the occupation remains an American enterprise under total American control, it will not attract the needed funding or foreign troops.
Bringing in NATO, as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry suggests, will not do much either. Until there's a U.N. peacekeeping force, drawn largely from the 22-member Arab League or the 51-member Islamic Conference, Iraq will remain a white man's burden.
Bulldozing the Abu Ghraib prison, as Bush suggests, would make for great campaign TV footage in America but do little to erase the still unfolding prison-abuse scandal in Iraq and beyond.
Raising an American-style jail (built no doubt by some private American contractor) would only add to the cynicism.
Bush's delayed half-apology on the prison abuse has turned out to be better than his silence on the killing of more than 40 Iraqis, including women and children, at a wedding in Syria.
Contrary to continued American assertions that what was bombed from the air was a nest of foreign fighters, a video playing on Arab TV clearly shows a well-known singer entertaining people. Eyewitnesses also report that as the guests scattered, American troops arriving on the scene shot at them and killed the other wounded.
We await definitive details, pending an inquiry, if there is one. But what the Arabs already know is enough to confirm their impression of the Vietnam-like insanity of saving Iraqis by killing them.
American troops remain in and around the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, even damaging some shrines. Does anyone in Washington recall that Osama bin Laden's biggest complaint for a decade was the American military presence in what he considered to be the holy soil of Saudi Arabia?
Meanwhile, Arab potentates, meeting at one of their peripatetic summits, this time in Tunis, brushed aside calls for greater democracy in the region. All they had to do was to invoke the many misdeeds of Bush.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.