The June Surprise

Robert Alt

June 28, 2004

Baghdad—With little fanfare, Ambassador Paul Bremer signed the papers this morning transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people in the presence of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Iraqi Chief Justice Midhat Al-Mahmoud. While governmental ceremonies throughout the world are often marked with fireworks, this surprise ceremony—two days before the anticipated official transfer of authority—was clearly intended to prevent fireworks of a nefarious kind.

The ceremony was conducted in the Green Zone with a small number of press present. The remainder of the press was informed by a phone call to the International Press Center. While a number of my colleagues in the press room were clearly upset that they had been “duped” about the date of the transfer, the “preemptive transfer” is an undeniably clever move by Ambassador Bremer and Prime Minister Allawi. The climate in Baghdad for the last week has been one of anxious anticipation. Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi made known in his now infamous memorandum that he wished to use the pretext of American occupation to increase terrorism in the days leading up to June 30th, leading many to fear that Al Qaeda planned something in the nature of a Tet Offensive to correspond with the transition. While the threat still lingers, the “pretext” does not. (Indeed, unconfirmed reports trickling in as this story goes to press suggest that Zarqawi himself may have been captured as well.) Any attack carried out from this day forward will unmistakably be one against the Iraqi people.

In the days and weeks leading up to the transition, many in the United States criticized the June 30th transition date as too soon—while some, such as Senator John Kerry, were critical of the decision to set a firm deadline for the transfer of power at all. Even so, the transition began much earlier than anyone anticipated. On March 28, 2004, the Ministry of Health became the first of Iraq’s 26 ministries to shift to Iraq control, and began the process which was completed last week when the last of the ministries came under Iraqi authority. Today’s ceremony was in many ways just that—ceremonial—representing a change in authority which had already substantively occurred.

Despite some claims to the contrary, the autonomy enjoyed by the agencies is substantive rather than merely symbolic. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Electricity, and the Ministry of Communication will retain only a small handful of Coalition consultants, who will have no operational authority, but will simply provide technical assistance as requested by the respective Iraqi ministers. Other ministries, like the Ministry of Education—whose 300,000 employees make it the largest of the 26 Iraqi ministries—will have no Coalition consultants at all.

I have already witnessed the substantive nature of the transition firsthand. At Forward Operating Base Bernstein, where I was embedded for approximately 7 weeks, the majority of operations conducted fall into the category of Civil Affairs (to use the military term), or nation building (to use the civilian term). I traveled to numerous villages ravaged by Saddam’s neglect and malice with troopers who assessed the locals’ needs regarding basic services such as clean drinking water, functional schools, and adequate electricity. The troopers presented projects—including building schools and digging wells—for Coalition approval from funds designated for these purposes. Recently, however, a number of projects were put on hold, because the funds were being shifted from Coalition to Iraqi control. For those who question whether Iraqis are going to be given a real chance to govern, they need look no further than the fact that the U.S. Army will now be submitting improvement project proposals to the Iraqi government for consideration.

Inevitably there will be some who will point to any misstep made by the Iraqis as evidence that America rushed the transition. But it is worth remembering that the “rush” to transfer authority was one precipitated—indeed demanded—by the Iraqi people themselves. While the majority of Iraqis were enthusiastic about being liberated, they were less enthusiastic about being occupied. This is because the Iraqis do not view themselves as a conquered people. To speak to an Iraqi is to learn that their tyrant was conquered; Iraq was liberated. As such, the people sought the chance to exercise their new found liberty through self-rule as soon as possible. There is often confusion, however, about Iraqi sentiment toward America in this process. At times, it seems that Iraqis both want America here and want America to leave at the same time. It is, however, possible to make sense of the paradox. Opinion polls and most Iraqis with whom I have spoken support the view that Iraqis are pleased to be rid of Saddam, want the opportunity to rule themselves, and recognize the need for continued U.S. security presence until they are capable of providing adequate security for themselves. With the transition, they have achieved all three goals.

The Iraqi leadership today inherits both great promise and a great challenge. They also inherit a people who are hungry for more. The Iraqi people have tasted democracy, and they want more. They have tasted a new, market-driven economy, and they want more. They have tasted a better life, and they want more—and they want it now. There are many pitfalls in the road ahead—terrorism being the most prominent—but today, for the first time in more than 35 years, the Iraqi people control their own future.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.