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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Transition Spurs Doubts as Well as Applause

Arab world expresses muted hope along with criticism. In Europe, some rejoice, others worry about stability.

June 29, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — The Arab world on Monday greeted the transfer of power in Iraq with a wary eye and lukewarm congratulations. Reserved leaders welcomed the early ceremony but were careful to point out that, as long as U.S. troops were thick on the ground, Iraq was still a far cry from a sovereign nation.

Arab rulers urged prompt elections. They fretted about Iraq's deteriorated security situation. And after 15 months in which turmoil and terrorism spread beyond Iraq's borders, they held out muted hope that Iraqi independence might cool tempers throughout the region.

"All we want is ... that the Iraqi government is able to exercise its sovereignty and authority in a way that acquires credibility," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters in Cairo.

Around the world, reaction to the formal end of a deeply divisive American-led occupation was mixed. Europeans were glad to see the occupation come to a close, but many remained skeptical that instability would subside. And there was little enthusiasm for committing troops to the region.

"We rejoice about this, naturally," said French President Jacques Chirac, one of Europe's most consistent critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy. "The return of Iraq's sovereignty is in our eyes a necessary condition ... for the reestablishment of peace, democracy and development in that country." But Chirac also reiterated his resistance to a large, official NATO role in training Iraqi armed forces.

Iraq has always loomed large in the Arab identity. It is a land of staunch Arab nationalism, revered culture and deep religious and historical significance. Its invasion and occupation forced many Arab leaders to search for secure political footing between the outrage of the street and diplomatic pressures that made them reluctant to take a tough stance against the U.S.-led war.

As the months wore on, Iraq became intertwined with the Palestinian intifada in public discourse as evidence of the dire consequences of U.S. policy. Arab leaders point to the two conflicts as the main obstacle to economic and social reform in the region. Islamic extremists have used the bloodshed to whip up support for terrorist attacks against foreigners and Arab governments alike.

In a message to Baghdad's interim leaders on Monday, Jordan's King Abdullah II pledged to help Iraq "regain its position as an independent and democratic nation enjoying freedom and prosperity." On the streets, many Arabs dismissed Iraq's interim leaders as U.S. puppets who lack legitimacy. Arab leaders Monday called for elections and signaled that they weren't ready for full diplomatic ties.

"This is a subject which is not under discussion now," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told reporters.

Still, Maher suggested that the hand-over could begin to stem the bloodshed Iraq has endured since the invasion more than a year ago. "Once the Iraqis feel that they are their own masters, and they have a government that has power, then this will make the restoration of stability easier," he said.

In Tehran, Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh cheered "any step toward the transfer of Iraqi affairs to the Iraqi people and the termination of occupation." U.S.-friendly Persian Gulf regimes in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia -- all of which gave substantial logistical support to the invasion despite the displeasure of their citizens -- extended cautious congratulations.

Kuwait, which was occupied by Iraq in the early 1990s, maintained the Arab world's sunniest view, restoring diplomatic ties with Iraq and calling Monday's transfer "the start of a new era."

In Syria, where official opposition to the war was intense, the tone was more somber. "Sovereignty means power, and power rests with the American army," said George Jabbour, a lawmaker and political scientist. "So sovereignty has not transferred to the Iraqis; it is clear that it rests with the Americans."

At the United Nations, Security Council members hailed the occupation's end and called on the interim government to hold elections by January as planned. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in Dubai, welcomed Iraq "back into the family of independent and sovereign nations" and said the U.N. was committed to do everything possible to help the Iraqi people, "as circumstances permit."

In Germany, the discussion turned to involving NATO troops in Iraq.

"I think it would be wrong to bring more and more additional soldiers to Iraq from abroad," said Volker Ruehe, a former German defense minister from the conservative Christian Democratic Party and head of the foreign affairs committee of the German lower house of parliament. "We need a clear break, we need an end of the occupation and, as soon as possible, we also need an Iraqization of the conflict," he told German radio.

Close U.S. allies in the occupation praised the early hand-over.

"Italy ... feels the moral duty to support this courageous Iraqi government in its commitment to democracy, security and economic and social reconstruction," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

But his government faced a debate in parliament over the continued deployment of nearly 3,000 troops in Iraq, he acknowledged.

Ann Clwyd, a Labor Party member of Britain's Parliament and Prime Minster Tony Blair's special human rights envoy in Iraq, said the transition was "an important symbol ... and a great day for the Iraqis."

Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Rome, Maggie Farley in Ottawa, Jeffrey Fleishman in Munich, Christian Retzlaff in Berlin, Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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