Posted Monday, June 28, 2004, at 3:22 PM PT - It was a smart move to transfer sovereignty to Iraq today, two days ahead of schedule. If the Bush administration keeps doing things this smart over the next several months, the transition to self-rule might go more smoothly than anyone has had reason to suspect.

The change of schedule didn't come as a complete surprise. Reporters in Baghdad were informed over the weekend that the handover would be moved up from Wednesday to Tuesday. Once June 30 was no longer sacrosanct, it wasn't a big step to hold the ceremony sooner still.

Intelligence analysts expected new torrents of violence to erupt in the days leading up to the handover. With an Iraqi government put in place now, any future terrorist attacks can be reclassified from "anti-occupation" to "insurrectionist."

The distinction is not merely symbolic—or, to the extent it is, the symbolism might be sufficiently potent to alter popular attitudes and behavior. On one level, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi could order emergency measures—not on behalf of the occupiers but in the name of the new Iraqi national government. On another, more critical, level, the Iraqi people might view the insurgency in a different way—as a threat not to the occupiers but to themselves. To the extent that the insurgents are nationalists and not jihadists, the accelerated move to self-rule might even deter some from continuing to take up arms.

It is therefore essential that Allawi at least appear to be an independent leader. At a minimum, every official announcement, press conference, or other public appearance in Iraq must be made by an Iraqi. Any American involved in the subject at hand should stand far in the background, if not out of sight.

Sometime in the next week, Allawi should have a public dispute with the United States—and he should very clearly prevail. It doesn't much matter what the issue is; the whole spat could be staged. The important thing is that Allawi must not merely say, but demonstrate, that he and his team are in charge.

Key figures in Iraqi politics seem willing, at least for the moment, to give Allawi a chance. The chief Shiite spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, has endorsed Allawi and urged his own followers to be peaceful. The insurgents unwittingly helped sway Sunni sentiments by playing their hand way too hard. Several of the most influential Sunni clerics condemned last Thursday's attacks that killed over 100 people in five towns. Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Sammarae said in his Friday sermon in Baghdad, "We do not need anyone from outside the borders to stand with us and spill the blood of our sons in Iraq."

Allawi himself played on a similar theme in an op-ed piece published in Sunday's Washington Post. Discussing the issue of security, Allawi wrote that his government:

will make a clear distinction between the Iraqis who have acted against the occupation out of a sense of desperation and the foreign terrorist fundamentalists and criminals whose sole objective is to kill and maim innocent people and to see Iraq fail. Our objective will be to reach out to the former group in a national Reconciliation effort and invite them to join us in a fresh start to build our country's future together, while at the same time isolating and defeating the latter group.

This is an immensely important statement in that it recognizes the legitimacy of at least one element of the resistance—specifically, those who fought the occupation for entirely nationalist reasons. U.S. officials have spoken abstractly about this distinction, but they have never been able to act on it—for good reason: Whatever the various insurgents' motives, they've all been shooting at American soldiers and therefore must be shot back at. Allawi's recognition alone—he also said he will grant amnesty to nationalist resisters who did not commit crimes—could go some distance toward his main goal of, as he put it, "isolating the hard-core elements."

Of course, isolating the hard-core elements is just one part of Allawi's task. The other part is fighting and killing them. Iraqis are best suited to handle the first part. They are not yet ready to handle the second part.

For this reason, as Allawi understands (it may be the main reason the Bush administration favored his ascension), American and other foreign troops are going to have to remain on Iraqi soil for some time to come.

Those American analysts and ex-officials who advocate a speedy pullout or a time table that specifies a date of withdrawal are kidding themselves. To maintain internal order, dampen ethnic tensions, stave off jihadist insurgents, and keep Iraqi borders secure, there is no substitute for a large number of well-trained armed forces. The current level of "coalition forces" isn't quite adequate for the job; the Iraqi army and police corps, working alone, would fall far, far short.

If the history of postwar "nation-building" is anything to go by, it will take a few more years at least for Iraq to coast on its own. (For a detailed analysis of this history, see James Dobbins' enlightening bookAmerica's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.)

One benefit of moving up the sovereignty handover to today is that it coincides with the meeting of NATO ministers and their discussion of whether to assist in training the new Iraqi army. First, the Western alliance would have seemed churlish if it had rejected such a measure on the very day that Iraq set out on its course of independence. Second, it's fitting that a truly international organization agreed to shore up Iraq's security, in some respect anyway, on the day that the U.S.-led occupation closed shop.

Allawi's big hope is that, with sovereignty in place, foreign troops will appear to be serving a legitimate Iraqi government rather than simply occupying Iraqi soil. Bush's big hope is that America's traditional allies will view the situation in the same way and, as a result, contribute more to the effort—not just by training Iraq's troops but by sending some of their own.

There is not a lot going for these hopes at the moment. One obstacle is the conceptual paradox: How do foreign armed forces maintain a presence that is, at once, effective and low-key? Another obstacle is the tangible reality of the situation: Allawi is America's hand-picked man; he has longtime ties to the CIA; he will unavoidably be seen as serving U.S. interests. Compounding this is the fact—as reported in Sunday's Washington Post—that, before he left Baghdad, Paul Bremer, the now-former head of the occupation authority, signed dozens of decrees ensuring a strong U.S. presence for years to come. (For instance, a seven-member commission was set up with the power to disqualify political parties and their candidates; the new national intelligence chief and national security adviser were given five-year terms; American-style commissions to regulate broadcasting and other sectors were established.)

Finally, there is the matter of George W. Bush himself. Bush is now desperately trying to cozy up to our erstwhile allies, especially those possessing the heaps of money and manpower that Iraq needs. But after three years of neglect or worse, will these allies go along? Do they trust him? Or do they see his turnaround as an election-year maneuver that he'll abandon after November? There may have to be a regime change in Washington before the international community comes full force to our aid in Iraq.

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate.

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