Violence looms for Iraq in transfer

More instability predicted in U.S. handover of power

First 6 months a critical period

March 27, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With less than 100 days to go before the United States gives up the reins of government in Iraq, analysts and even some administration officials warn that the six months after the handover could bring even more instability and violence.

Publicly, Bush administration officials speak optimistically about the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis set for June 30.

"It will be a happy event for all Iraq," L. Paul Bremer III, who heads the U.S.-led occupation authority, said this week. "Iraq is now on a path to full democracy in a united state at peace with its neighbors."

But signs of future instability are obvious. No one knows who will rule Iraq during the first months of sovereignty or control its oil revenues, and a process for future elections has yet to be set up. Although U.S. troops will remain indefinitely, there is no formal agreement between the United States and Iraq over how they will operate.

U.S. military officers have predicted an increase of violence as the handover approaches. Nearly 600 Americans have died since the war began, many as victims of an insurgency made up of Iraqis and foreign Muslim fighters.

Now, some analysts and officials fear that the fragile post-June 30 period could be worse.

The post-June 30 period, which coincides with the final months of the American presidential race, will help determine whether Iraq moves forward toward becoming the regional democratic beacon that the Bush administration envisions or slides backward into ethnic strife among its Shiite majority and Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

The uncertain Iraqi political outlook creates "a very dangerous situation," said Marina Ottoway, an expert on democracy building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The administration is trying to gloss over it, but we're at a very critical point because we don't have a viable transition plan."

If the new government proves weak, nonviolent political groups will withdraw from the scene, said Ray Salvatore Jennings, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

"You'll see the old survival tactics reassert themselves," he said, as Iraqis realign themselves along ethnic and tribal lines. "Then you've got a real recipe for disorder, militias and civil war."

"I think we can hold the line," Jennings said, "but we need to be prepared to work very hard and recognize the dangers that are out there."

Neither the Bush administration, nor Iraqis, nor leaders overseas want to postpone the date for handing over sovereignty from the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority to Iraqis.

On that day, Bremer will leave the heavily guarded U.S. "green zone" in Baghdad for a vacation home in Vermont. Many of his American employees will become staff members of a U.S. Embassy under an ambassador who has yet to be appointed.

A huge American presence will remain in the country: at least 100,000 troops and one of the largest U.S. Embassy staffs in the world, together with contractors funded by $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid.

Although Iraqis want the aid and continued protection from U.S. troops, they will resent any continued American rule over their government, analysts said.

But forming an interim government has produced a power struggle involving the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council and outside groups.

A year after it resisted giving the United Nations a central role in Iraq, the Bush administration has turned to the world body to help ensure a smooth transition, prepare for legislative elections by the end of January and full-scale national elections by late next year.

A U.N. team, due to arrive next week, will be led by Lakhdar Brahimi, who enjoys broad international credibility for his painstaking work in knitting together a new government in Afghanistan.

But many Iraqis are skeptical of Brahimi's mission.

"The mood on the Iraqi street is hostile to a robust re-engagement of the U.N.," said Ray Salvatore Jennings , a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, who recently returned from eight weeks in Iraq.

He added: "The U.N. will have a very difficult time getting in place in time [for its work] to be meaningful."

Brahimi's efforts might be undercut by an agreement between Bremer and the Governing Council to decide by April 15 what the interim government will look like.

Many analysts predict that they will agree to preserve the Governing Council, perhaps in an expanded form. "It will be de facto some kind of expansion of the Governing Council," said Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense who until recently advised the U.S. occupation authority.

"I see that as problematic," said Bathsheba Crocker, a specialist in postconflict reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As we've all seen, the Governing Council is not viewed as legitimate body in or outside of Iraq."

"We run a real risk [of having] a supposed sovereign government without legitimacy," Crocker said.

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