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The Fog Persists in Iraq

As the military and security situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the United States and the United Nations have pinned ever-higher expectations on the appointment of a new interim government. That process, completed Tuesday, did not go quite as either the U.S. or the U.N. expected. The future of Iraq is not much clearer, and the popular legitimacy of the new government is an unknown.

The politicians of the old U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council simply outflanked the U.N. special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, in forcing their own choices for a Shiite prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and a Sunni, Ghazi Ajil Yawer, for the more ceremonial post of president. One of the two deputy prime ministers will be a Kurd.

Political analysts believe the U.S. was weakened by military standoffs in Fallouja and Najaf and by the still-developing prison abuse scandal. It could not arrest militant cleric and militia leader Muqtada Sadr, much less provide the muscle to get Brahimi’s top choices installed.

At least former exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, whose false claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction played a major part in leading the U.S. to invade, has been shoved aside. Allawi, though he has received CIA funding and support, is now a critic of the U.S. and an avowed foe of Chalabi, whose own years of U.S. funding belatedly ended last month.

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President Bush said two weeks ago that it was “time to take the training wheels off” and let an interim government replace the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority on July 1. That’s more an insult than a declaration of confidence in the new government’s ability to protect itself, the frightened cadre of foreign workers in Iraq or the ordinary Iraqis who are desperate to lead normal lives. A longtime exile, Allawi has little base of support inside Iraq. With the wholesale resignation of the Governing Council, his biggest local backers have left the scene.

Perhaps it is not a portent that Tuesday was punctuated by a mortar attack and two deadly car bombings in and near Baghdad. But the attacks were business as usual in a city increasingly too dangerous for walking around or conducting legitimate business.

More than 800 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the war began, most of them since Bush declared “major combat” effectively over more than a year ago. More than 130,000 troops will stay on after July 1. But to whom will they answer? Allawi said he wanted control over U.S. forces except when they had to defend themselves. What constitutes self-defense will not be a question settled easily, if at all.

Allawi’s Cabinet is neatly divided among Iraq’s diverse and competing groups. Whether its members can even be protected from assassination precedes the question of whether they can govern effectively. That, in a nutshell, is the continuing U.S. problem in Iraq.


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