A few days back, Mr. Stewart inquired in a post about my thoughts on a Thomas Sowell article which chastised Iraqi leaders who placed symbolism above substance by attempting to subject foreign contractors to Iraqi law. I have a few thoughts on the topic. First, Sowell doesn’t mention the obvious problem: among the contractors who presumably would be subject to Iraqi law are private security forces like Blackwater. These individuals provide security not just for the American CPA officials and the future diplomats, but also for Iraqi diplomats (indeed, one was killed in the service of the Minister of Health), and other contractors. While there may be some agreement to try to place them into a separate category of immunity, I have not yet seen any evidence of this. The failure to provide immunity for these individuals would probably be the most serious deficiency of the proposed policy.
With that said, it is worth talking for a moment about symbolism. Recent polls showed that a majority of Iraqis had come to view Americans as occupiers rather than liberators. This is largely a function of symbolism. For example, when I interviewed Fr. Hermiz, the Catholic priest from Baghdad, a couple of months ago, he mentioned that the presence of the Americans in Saddam’s palaces and in his government buildings created a bad impression among the Iraqi people. First, they got the impression that Americans were living it up at the expense of the Iraqi people. I explained that in reality, these buildings are used as office space. The employees—even fairly high ranking employees—live in modular housing, and even then they have roommates in the cramped tin boxes. He told me that he understood, but that didn’t change the impression that people got. Second, he suggested that occupying the house that a brutal dictator built simply was “not a good image for America.” It was therefore no real surprise that the new government has voiced concerns about the US using the palace for expanded Embassy quarters in Baghdad. This is a case where symbols are important. It would be good for America to let the Iraqi people have the palaces, and in some cases we are. For example, the Republican Palace in Adhamiya, which I visited when I embedded with elements of the 1st Armored Division about three months ago, was being prepared at that time to be handed over to the ICDC as a base of operations for that area. This was a palace that was built with Oil for Food money, and was used by Uday as a “love shack.” It will now be, for the first time, in the hands of the Iraqi people. Other palaces, such as the main palace in Baghdad, may be more difficult to vacate just as a matter of space concerns. America will be opening its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad. The current US embassy building (which I believe is still being renovated), will simply not accommodate the staff. My understanding is that the government wants to give the Green Zone back, but that there are logistical snags which may drag the process out.
Now to substance. There have been numerous questions about what the transition will really mean. In some ways, it will mean little. The primary provider of security in the region will still be the Coalition—even after June 30th. While the Coalition will be here at the invitation of the Iraqis, who could technically choose to “un-invite” them, the prospect of such a move is remarkably slim. This is because Iraqi security forces, while making progress, are far from ready to overtake the day-to-day security operations for Iraq. Will this prevent factions from saber rattling if they disagree with the US on a particular military decision? No. But it will keep the moderates in check. And indeed, virtually every Iraqi I have spoken with has recognized the need for continued US presence in the country to preserve order.
Among the political branches, however, the transition will be far more substantive. To date, 60 percent of the Iraqi government has already transitioned to sovereignty. Some ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Electricity, and the Ministry of Communication will continue to retain a small handful of Coalition consultants. These individuals will have no operational authority, but will simply provide technical assistance as requested by the respective Iraqi minister. Other Ministries, like the Ministry of Education—whose 300,000 employees make it the largest of the 26 Iraqi ministries—will have no Coalition consultants. (I’m not entirely sure that the complete absence of consultants at Education is a good thing, but time will tell.)
I have already witnessed first hand some of the growing pains of transition. At FOB Bernstein, the majority of operations conducted fall in the category of Civil Affairs to use the military term, or nation building to use the civilian term. As such, I went to numerous villages with the troopers as they assessed the locals’ needs regarding drinking water, schools, and electricity. The troopers would generally get projects such as building schools and digging wells approved from funds allocated for these purposes, and then contract with local businesses to complete the projects. Recently, however, a number of projects were put on hold, because the funds were being shifted to Iraqi control. For those who question whether Iraqis are going to be given a real chance to govern, they need look no further than the fact that the U.S. Army will now be submitting improvement project proposals to the Iraqi government for consideration. Of course, even this is potentially subject to peril and abuse. For example, municipal services under Saddam were allocated to the villages by the major cities in the area. Many of the Kurdish villages in the Tuz area were therefore under the jurisdiction of Kirkuk. But Saddam tired of Kirkuk actually providing services to the Kurds, so he changed the Kurdish villages to the jurisdiction of the more distant and more Arab city of Tikrit, thereby functionally cutting off many services. The Kurds have expressed fear that shifting the decision making back to the Iraqi government without correcting the subtle oppression inherent in the structure of governance may perpetuate old wrongs.
There is much to think about on this topic, and I will be writing more on the subject in the coming days.