There was a great deal of criticism for the Bush administration’s decision to make June 30th a hard deadline for transition from both sides of the aisle before the transition actually occurred. On the right, no lesser a source than William F. Buckley had suggested that perhaps June 30, 2005 would be an appropriate transition date, and on the left, the Washington Post had cited presidential candidate John Kerry as criticizing the inflexibility of June 30th. When I first came to Iraq, one of the questions I carried with me on arrival was whether the speedy transition was appropriate. I soon got my answer. I had a series of conversations with Iraqis in which it became obvious that they considered it important to transfer power as soon as possible. As I have noted before, the Iraqis were happy that Saddam was removed, and they saw the U.S. invasion as a defeat of Saddam, and not of Iraq. They therefore hungered to take control of their own government.
One of the key objections by Iraqis to the American occupation was seeing the Americans occupying Saddam’s old palaces. As the Iraqi priest I chatted with early in my visit to Iraq told me, this occupation of Saddam’s buildings gave Iraqis a very bad impression. The sooner the halls of government were occupied by Iraqis, the better. Once the promise was made to transfer governmental power, there was an additional reason to stick to the date: it was also a matter of keeping our word. When I attended the transition ceremony for the Ministry of Health—the first ministry to transition to Iraqi control—the new Iraqi Health Minister Dr. Kudair Abbas made clear his appreciation for the fact that the Americans had kept their word, and had kept it early. Any shifting of the date forward in time would have undoubtedly have been seen by Iraqis as a power grab—even if it were done for the most beneficent of reasons.
But perhaps most importantly, it was necessary to shift political control to the Iraqis in order to give them some sense of ownership of their country. While the Americans were in control, it was too easy for the Iraqis to simply blame the Americans for any grievances, and to do little to rectify those issues for themselves. Notably, while many Iraqis were upset at terrorism, in some sense the attacks were viewed as aimed at Americans, and not necessarily at fellow Iraqis (even when Iraqis died). But with Iraqis at the helm of the ship of state, there is a shift toward increasing Iraqi responsibility. PM Allawi understands this, particularly in the area of terrorism, and has made a conscious effort to make certain that his people understand that the terrorist attacks are attacks on Iraq which cannot be tolerated. From his first speech in office, he has called on his countrymen to assist him in rooting out terrorism from Iraq. And Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also understands this, which is why in his memorandum to fellow Al Qaeda terrorists intercepted in February, he called on terrorists to increase their attacks prior to June 30th, while they could still use what he called the “pretext” of U.S. occupation to justify their attacks. That pretext no longer exists, and PM Allawi has used the bully pulpit of the leadership of Iraq to make clear that the attacks committed are now clearly against Iraq.
The shift in control and concomitant shift in responsibility appears to be working. Yesterday’s car bombing was one of the first major attacks since the transition in Baghdad. This appears to have been caused by a few factors. The first is better intelligence which led to a series of successful attacks on alleged Zarqawi safe houses in Fallujah. Reports issued by the Multi-National Forces stated that in at least two of the buildings, explosions continued for 20-30 minutes after the buildings were hit with precision weapons, suggesting that the buildings contained large caches of munitions. Some of this intelligence came from key captures, while other intelligence has come as a result of greater cooperation with Iraqis—cooperation that is undoubtedly aided by improved relations related to the transition. The second factor behind the recent quiet is believed to be the shift of the transition to two days earlier—a move which is believed to have frustrated plans to stage a spectacular attack to correspond with the handover of authority. But perhaps the most factor is the wedge that Allawi has been carefully driving between the terrorists and the Iraqis. Following yesterday’s attack, he again made clear that this act constituted naked aggression against the Iraqi people. The sentiment seems to be taking root, and it is very likely that by conducting attacks that specifically target Iraqis, the terrorists are driving the nails in their own coffins. Their days of open operation in Iraq are numbered. Does this mean that there will be no more terrorist attacks in Iraq? Of course not—such a suggestion is silly. But rather than openly operating, they will have to act more covertly as they do in other countries which are inhospitable to terrorism. This is a good lesson for the 9/11 Commission and for the critics of the war that do not understand the terrorism connection. When Saddam was in power, Iraq was hospitable to terrorism groups. Ansar al Islam openly operated and trained with Al Qaeda near the Iraq-Iran border. Known terrorists such as Zarqawi took refuge in Iraq after 9/11. And these groups operated openly in a country where Saddam used agents to collect information about and to micromanage the affairs of the smallest villages as far away as Kurdistan. Even leaving aside Saddam’s more direct funding links to known terrorists, by removing Saddam and by facilitating a government which is hostile to terrorists, the U.S. has given terrorists one less safe place to hide and train.