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A Tenuous Grip on Sovereignty

A year after taking the formal reins of government, the Iraqis are far from having a sense of control over their own destiny.

June 28, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — On a busy commercial strip, U.S. soldiers cajole a ragged band of reluctant Iraqi army recruits to take charge of their own streets. In the highest corridors of power, U.S. officials press Iraqi politicians to meet political deadlines. A year after occupation authority head L. Paul Bremer III handed the formal reins to an appointed Iraqi government, private military firms contracted by the Pentagon continue to wield guns with scant regard for Iraqi authorities.

But long gone are the days when U.S. and British officials of Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority controlled all aspects of the Iraqi state. Ministries that oversee Iraq's natural resources, energy reserves, schools, hospitals and finances have evolved over the last year into vigorous players in Iraq's daily life. And elected Iraqi politicians are devising their own constitution with little direct involvement by U.S. officials.

"We cannot any longer simply dictate, but have to lobby, persuade, cajole and implore," says Larry Diamond, a former Baghdad-based CPA official who is now a scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "At the same time, how independent can the government really be when it is still largely, in fact utterly, dependent on American troops for its security? Ultimately, full independence will only come when this dependence on the U.S. for security ends."


Bremer handed formal control of Iraq over to the interim government of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in a low-key June 28, 2004, ceremony that lasted less than 20 minutes. But the reality of Iraqis taking control of their own streets, government and borders has been a longer and more tangled story.

Sovereignty -- a nation's control over its affairs and territories -- is about symbols of national pride, and command over physical space and decision-making. U.S. Embassy officials continue to occupy the same Republican Palace from which Bremer, and Saddam Hussein before him, ran the country. It lies within the Green Zone, a four-square-mile fortress in the heart of the nation's capital controlled by the U.S. military.

Many Iraqi ministries are also within the Green Zone. Though the Western officials who ran them in the wake of the March 2003 invasion are now gone, new Westerners have taken on roles as advisors or consultants, some of them paid directly out of the Iraqi public treasury.

Washington officials visiting Baghdad last month acknowledged that they were pressuring Iraqis to move quickly toward drafting a constitution by an Aug. 15 deadline. Although Iraqis are making their own choices, the U.S. insists, for example, that Iraq remain unified and that the future government operate with laws respecting human rights and democratic principles.

Sovereignty also means having the legal power to use armed forces or to jail and prosecute lawbreakers. But significant stretches of Iraq remain beyond the control of the government.

The Iraqi government, militias, the U.S. military and even insurgent groups all claim the right to use arms. The U.S. military holds thousands of Iraqi prisoners. Even foreign-influenced insurgent groups hold their own trials, using what they say is Islamic law and procedures, on Iraqi soil to punish alleged collaborators.

Western security contractors, like private armies, operate in a quasi-legal world that has drawn the concern of U.S. military commanders as well as the Iraqi government. Inside well-guarded compounds of security firms such as Sandi Group, founded by a wealthy Iraqi American, hundreds of uniformed young Iraqi recruits train in a warehouse amid crates full of machine guns, as if preparing to take over the world in a James Bond movie.

Asked at a news conference about clashes between U.S. Marines and contractors in Fallouja this month, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, the nation's top cop, shrugged. "Ask the Americans and the contractors," he said.

"I don't think a country can be sovereign with such forces on its soil," says Sebastian Deschamps, a scholar based in France and founder of PMCs Monitor, a website that advocates tighter rules for private military companies.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 enshrined Iraqi sovereignty in international law. Americans don't run Iraq's security matters; rather, there is a "high degree of coordination" between Iraqi and American forces, a U.S. official in Baghdad said.

But the mere presence of the 140,000 troops and their immunity from Iraqi law have made the concept of sovereignty a tough sell on the streets. Though many Iraqis say U.S. troops are needed to maintain security, the large armed foreign presence undercuts claims of Iraqi sovereignty and erodes support for the shaky coalition of U.S. soldiers, Shiite political parties and Iraqi Kurds that runs Iraq.

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