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U.S. Firm on Iraq Handoff

Sovereignty will be returned June 30, officials insist. But the coalition's control over key matters may leave both sides dissatisfied.

April 07, 2004|Paul Richter and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — One of the few things untouched by the new violence spreading across Iraq is the ringing U.S. insistence that no amount of instability will derail American plans to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis on June 30.

But when the U.S. does make the transfer, formally ending the occupation, the new and still undefined Iraqi government will receive only very limited authority -- a sort of "Sovereignty Lite" that may not satisfy either Iraqis or Americans.

Current administration plans call for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq at occupation strength. Under Iraq's transitional administrative law, the United States and its allies also will in effect keep control over the partially organized Iraqi army, as well as the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which has been fighting insurgents. The coalition is also expected to retain influence over the police force it is helping train.

Control of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid will give the Americans additional leverage with the interim government. If the United Nations agrees to return to Iraq to help organize the country, the U.S. is likely to wield important influence through the world body as well.

A huge new U.S. Embassy will take the place of the current Coalition Provisional Authority, and the largest CIA station in the world will be in Baghdad.

"The June 30 thing is mostly symbolic," said Joseph S. Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration. "What you have on June 30 essentially is a transformation of the CPA into an embassy. But it's mostly in name."

Despite mounting questions about whether the deadline can or should be met, Bush administration officials have repeated their commitment to June 30. Denying that the date is merely symbolic, they are eager to convince Americans and Iraqis that they intend to make good on their promise to step back.

"We will pass sovereignty on June 30," President Bush said again Tuesday, in an appearance in Arkansas. "We will stay the course in Iraq."

Yet U.S. officials also stress that America will retain a guiding hand in Iraq, and they have sought to assuage concerns that the hand-over will jeopardize the costly, often painful U.S. effort to build a democracy there.

That was the message administration officials tried to convey last month in describing how the new U.S. Embassy will supplant the CPA. The embassy is likely to have several thousand employees, by some estimates, including technical advisors and specialists from a range of U.S. agencies.

"The good old USA will still be there," a senior administration official told reporters. "We'll be encouraging, supporting, persuading, and the Iraqis will get things done because they have to.... We will be there to help them stand up, to get over the rough spots."

Still unanswered is the question of what form of Iraqi government will be in place July 1. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is in Iraq holding discussions on forming an interim government that can run the country until elections next year. Although the recent burst of violence has complicated his task, U.S. officials insist that it won't delay the return of sovereignty.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that arguments about moving the transfer date were based on a misunderstanding, because U.S. authorities will have as much control over Iraqi security issues after the hand-over as they do now.

"The [June 30] deadline applies to political governance of the country. It doesn't apply to the security responsibility.... And I think some people have misunderstood that," he said.

Until March, U.S. officials were preparing to sign a "status of forces" agreement with Iraq that would have set limits on how American military force could be used in the country after June 30. Last month, however, officials decided to forgo such an agreement and continue to rely on U.N. Security Council resolutions for authorization, which will give the forces broader latitude to conduct operations, analysts say.

On some issues, the Iraqi government will make its own decisions -- as it increasingly has been doing. Iraqi officials recently supported OPEC's move to cut oil production, even though the decision wasn't in the interests of the United States as an oil-importing country, noted Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Iraqis will probably adopt some foreign policies Washington won't be happy with. For example, they may warm relations with Iran and keep them cool with Israel, Clawson said.

But many experts predict that on major issues, the United States will get what it wants, so there is little point in delaying the formal transfer of authority.

Henry J. Barkey, a former State Department official now at Lehigh University, said, "The reality is that most power will be transferred to the U.S. ambassador."

One reason the administration wants to shift authority is to make Washington less visible in the running of Iraq. But some analysts fear that having the U.S. exert influence from the wings also could carry political risks.

Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the presence of U.S. forces may not be well received once Iraqis are formally in control of the government.

If the troops use force to quell looting or rioting, for example, they could be accused of unnecessary violence. If they stand by in such circumstances and do nothing, they could be accused of allowing violence to occur.

"You get into a position where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," she said. "That can cause political problems that would lead to bringing troops home earlier than you wanted."


In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

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