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A Tenuous Grip on Sovereignty

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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.

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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.

“As long as the Americans don’t believe or trust the religious parties, our sovereignty is partial,” said Riyadh Bahr Uloum, a city council member in the shrine city of Najaf. “They say they are serious about the democratic process, but it seems that they still fear the Shiites. We have some sovereignty, but the American control is still dominant.”

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The sense that Iraqis, even after braving bombs and explosions to cast votes, still don’t control their destiny wounds national pride and ultimately may play into the hands of the insurgents, who contend that the Americans actually are intent on imperial expansion.

“What does sovereignty mean to me if I can be shot at by any soldier on the street for any traffic violation without any responsibility on the American soldier?” said Ali Nejam, 37, a Baghdad merchant.

The U.S. remains the key power broker in Iraq, according to such observers as a retired U.S. intelligence official with three decades’ experience in the Middle East.

“I doubt very much that anyone -- governments or publics -- in the Middle East thinks for a moment that the Iraqi government is independent of the U.S. or would last five minutes if the U.S. forces were to leave,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Embassy officials who replaced the CPA administrators have struggled to step back significantly from involvement in day-to-day Iraqi affairs, repeatedly stressing that Iraqis are making the key decisions.

Iraqis have often aggressively pursued their own affairs, occasionally repudiating American plans and interests. Shiite Islamists running on an anti-occupation platform handily won the Jan. 30 elections despite mysterious millions spent on TV advertising by Allawi, the secular, pro-U.S. interim prime minister.

Though the U.S. has refused for a quarter of a century to establish ties with Iran’s clerical regime, Iraqi diplomats regularly visit Tehran, and Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, was received warmly by officials in Baghdad during a May visit.

Despite U.S. plans to disband militias in Iraq, many of them run by religious groups, the newly elected government has praised the Shiite Badr Brigade and the Kurdish peshmerga as integral parts of Iraq’s future.

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And despite Bush administration hopes that a new Iraq could serve as a bridge between the Arab world and Israel and the West, members of Iraq’s Islamic clerical elite regularly denounce Israel and the U.S. in their Friday sermons. Iraq’s dominant Shiite religious parties despise Israel as much as Hussein did.

“All forces of evil have met and joined together to harm the new government and impede it from doing its work and bringing prosperity to Iraqis,” Sheik Muhammad Ali Radhi told his parishioners in the moderate, middle-class Shiite neighborhood of Karada last week. “All evil forces like the orphans of Saddam, the Americans, the Jews and Zionists, and the Crusaders have allied together for this purpose.”

Americans no longer control Iraq’s governmental institutions. An elected Iraqi government now determines school curriculum, criminal sentencing standards and budgets for healthcare, port reconstruction and other governmental services. Officials of the transitional government say the U.S. stays out of day-to-day decision-making unless called upon for help.

“Nobody interfered in my job at all, and I would not have let anyone interfere,” said National Assembly Speaker Hachim Hassani. “But if I wanted to consult with the Americans on certain things or there is something I think where they could be helpful and supportive, I would approach them and hopefully they would be helpful. They never imposed on me.”

Where Iraqis have the capacity, they’ve won independence, say officials of the transitional government. And there are signs Iraqis are taking a more active role in security as well as governance. Though Iraqi security forces mostly provide a supporting role in U.S.-led counterinsurgency efforts, they have begun plotting their own course.

Though their troops are continually targeted by insurgents, Iraqi military officials boast that over the last year, this nation’s armed forces have improved in their fighting ability, increased their specialized training, bolstered their officer corps and are better supplied. Such factors give Iraq’s new army the ability to act more independently.

“Increasingly, they’re taking charge of their own security operations,” said a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad. “That shows me that they’re practicing their sovereignty.”

Just outside the office of Ministry of Defense Chief of Staff Gen. Babaker Zebari sits a U.S. Army major, one of many American officials positioned at the highest levels of power in the Iraqi state. Zebari, however, insists that he’s not under the control of anyone.

“In terms of our duties, we are already 100% independent,” he said. “We can do what we want. But there’s one thing. There are the multinational forces. And they have a command. And all armed forces in Iraq are under its authority.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Iraq update

A look at the situation in Iraq since power was handed back to the Iraqis; data as of Thursday unless otherwise noted:

A new government is formed:

June 28, 2004 Fifteen months after the start of the Iraq War, the U.S. hands over power to the interim Iraqi government.

Jan. 30, 2005 Iraq holds its first free elections in half a century.

Feb. 17 The makeup of the transitional National Assembly is announced, with the Shiite coalition holding a slim majority in the 275-member body.

April 6 Major political parties agree on a Kurdish president and Shiite and Sunni vice presidents. The next day Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, is named prime minister.

April 29 Iraq’s new govern-ment takes office.

June 16 Deal is struck to include more Sunnis on a constitution-writing committee.

What’s next: The transitional National Assembly’s deadline for drafting a permanent constitution is Aug. 15. A national referendum is to be held in October to approve the document. If the constitution is approved, Iraqis will elect a permanent government in December.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Brookings Institution, Tribune archives, Associated Press


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