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Puppet power?

The Iraqi interim government can gain credibility only if the Bush administration is willing to give it something close to the "full sovereignty" it promised.

Published June 2, 2004

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice's tepid defense of the new Iraqi interim government - "These are not America's puppets" - seems destined to take its place alongside Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" and Jimmy Carter's "I will never lie to you" in the annals of Washington's unintentionally revealing pre-emptive denials.

"Puppets" is too harsh a word for the new Iraqi leaders, which is why no one other than Rice has used it. Several of the Iraqi officials (many of whom were part of the provisional government that is being replaced) had the courage and independence to stand up to Saddam Hussein. Standing up to Washington should be a less risky proposition.

At the same time, it is silly for President Bush to keep insisting that the interim government will enjoy "full sovereignty." It will be utterly dependent on Washington's military, economic and political support. In any case, no would-be Iraqi leader who asserted true independence from Washington would have been chosen for the new government in the first place. Despite White House promises that U.N. envoy Lakhtar Brahimi would have full authority to choose the new government, the fingerprints of U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and other administration officials were all over the selections.

For example, President Bush Tuesday made much of the fact that Iraq's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, publicly thanked the United States this week for its intervention. But if Allawi hadn't expressed his thanks to the United States, and the Bush administration in particular, he would be a world-class ingrate. For years, Allawi (like Ahmed Chalabi, who is now being portrayed as one of those world-class ingrates) enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the CIA. Allawi's inner circle, which is dominated by former leaders of Hussein's Baath party and the Iraqi military, also profited from a crucial White House policy reversal that allowed Iraqis with past ties to Hussein to reclaim positions of power.

So Allawi's gratitude isn't in question. His credibility is. If the Bush administration really wants to give the interim government a chance to establish itself, it will quickly begin giving it real control of courts, banks, oil production and other crucial state functions. Militarily, U.S. authorities already have ceded control of much of Iraq to Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish militias that were supposed to have been disbanded months ago. Only a credible, broad-based Iraqi government can hope to take on the delicate task of replacing the militias with a national security force.

President Bush warned again Tuesday that violence among Iraqis, or between Iraqis and U.S. forces, could get even worse during this political transition. The jockeying for power within the interim government may be equally fierce. Allawi, who is supposed to be the most powerful figure in the new government, doesn't have the look of a true national leader. Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, who was not the White House's first choice for what was supposed to be the largely ceremonial post of president, may emerge as a political force. He is younger and more energetic than Allawi, and his criticism of the U.S. occupation has won him favor on the Iraqi streets.

Al-Yawer may be the first leader of the new government to test the Bush administration's commitment to "full sovereignty." If a bit of anti-Washington rhetoric will help al-Yawer or Allawi win credibility at home, the White House should be ready to shrug it off. But it must also be prepared to transfer real power to the new government as a first step toward stabilizing Iraq and bringing our troops home.

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 23:54:21]


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