In for a dime

April 21, 2004

THE GOOD NEWS from Iraq is that the violence has subsided a bit - at least for now. The U.S. Marines have offered not to pulverize Fallujah if the insurgents there agree to cool it; bringing killers to justice can wait until later. In the Shiite areas, the uprising sparked by Muqtada al-Sadr may have been premature, and peaked too soon. (Worriers of a historical bent, though, will recall that a revolt inspired by Lenin in the summer of 1917 fizzled out; it was a prelude to his successful grab for power several months later.)

And yet the ferocity of the fighting in the first half of April came as a jolt. It obliterated two illusions: that the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be winding down, and that the country itself is on the mend as sovereignty approaches.

This much is clear: The Iraqi security forces are not up to the job they've been entrusted with. L. Paul Bremer III, the occupation chief, has acknowledged that American soldiers and Marines will have to be responsible for establishing order, and maintaining it. Terms of deployment have been extended, because there simply is no alternative. Yet it's important to understand that the reaction among ordinary Iraqis is not likely to be one of gratitude.

In Iraq, as in much of the world, real power is the power that is backed by the threat of violence. A transitional Iraqi government can fix all the schools and generate all the electricity it wants to, but as long as the peace is kept by men and women with U.S. flags on their uniform sleeves, no one in Iraq will consider that the June 30 transfer of sovereignty has any meaning. It's as straightforward as that.

And yet, assuming the United Nations can succeed where Mr. Bremer has failed, and some sort of transitional government can be cobbled together in the next 10 weeks, the handover of sovereignty will have to go forward, because postponing it would only make things worse. But the less that's made of it, the better. Iraqis don't need a patently phony ceremony at this point, and neither do Americans.

Mr. Bremer, at least, can go home on the first of July - something that now seems unlikely for thousands of U.S. troops. He is to be replaced by John D. Negroponte as ambassador, another sign that sovereignty is a relative term. Mr. Negroponte is the career foreign service officer who was America's man in the quintessential banana republic of the 1980s, Honduras. While there, he made sure not to notice the death squads that might have cast a bad light on the American-sponsored regime. Baghdad may require keener powers of observation on his part.

The Bush administration's project to remake Iraq will have to be a long and wearying effort if it is to succeed. The fantasies of a glorious new dawn have pretty well subsided; realism may yet set in. The current respite in the bloodletting is welcome, but the ugliness that the recent fighting revealed is a warning to all: Solving Iraq will not be easy, and it won't be quick. This is not a cakewalk.

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