BAGHDAD – Iraq’s new minister of the interior Falah al-Nakib and his staff were so taken by surprise by the unexpected handover of sovereignty by the U.S.-led occupation Monday that they failed to make it to the brief ceremony.
They stayed in their office, an air-raid shelter meant for one of Saddam Hussein’s daughters, and watched it on television.
But when they heard the news that the American administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had left the country, they kissed and shook hands, says Sabah al-Ali, a close advisor to the minister, and his former brother-in-arms in the fight against Saddam. The CPA was the occupation mechanism that ran the country since the invasion in April last year.
“It was such a relief for us,” said al-Ali. “Bremer (L. Paul Bremer, who was CPA administrator) was the supreme leader of our country in a period that was very tragic and in which may bad things happened to Iraq.”
There was also a very practical side to the relief felt in the interior ministry. “While Bremer was around he still exercised ultimate authority,” said al-Ali. “We never knew when one of our instructions would be countered by him.”
The handover of sovereignty to the new Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi went ahead two days ahead of the scheduled date June 30. It marks a formal end to 15 months of occupation after the U.S.-led invasion last year.
The reason for moving the date forward seems obvious to people in Iraq, and few questioned the wisdom of it. In a country racked by violent attacks and debilitating instability, many ordinary Iraqis saw it as a smart move.
Everybody knew about June 30, said Mohammed Yassin, a 29-year old unemployed inhabitant of the teeming Shia neighborhood of Sadr City. “It would have been an invitation for every terrorist to try and mount an attack.”
The new government seems to be able to count on an initial measure of sympathy from a population that has been shaken by a prolonged period of instability. Restoration of public order is seen everywhere as the key to the new government’s success or failure.
Even so, there is very little tolerance for the continued presence of American and other foreign troops after the handover.
“The Americans still patrol Sadr City,” said Yassin to nods of agreement from others at the tea house where he spends most of his afternoons. “We don’t want them, our police is enough.”
People in Sadr City, where violent clashes have taken place between local militias and the Americans say they will respect their own Iraqi security forces. “The policemen are our brothers, our cousins and our friends,” said Yassin. “We will arrange the security together with them.”
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi can at least count on some support in this huge Shia neighbourhood. “He’s a good man, he’s a Shia,” a man at the tea house said. Others agreed.
In the working class Sunni neighborhood Shuhada (meaning martyrs in Arabic), the sheikh at the local Hanan mosque saw the prime minister differently. “There is no difference between Sunni and Shia,” said Sheikh Mahmoud Khudeir Abbas.
He was pleased about the new government for very similar reasons. “At least they are Muslims,” he said. “Now all the foreign troops should leave our country. It is hard for the people to see them here.”
Saad Jawad, professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, sounded pessimistic about the chances of success of the new government. On the one hand the ministers are still tied to the Americans for many things they need, and on the other they will be blamed if things go wrong, he said.
“This government is neither elected nor independent,” said Jawad. “Everything will depend on whether the Americans will give them everything they need to do the job.” Jawad clearly believed this will not be the case.
The new government will indeed still depend on the former coalition forces, now renamed the Multi-National Forces, for most security operations. The newly reconstituted Iraqi security forces, police, national guard and army now number some 200,000. But they have only been provided light arms, and even for communications and other logistics they still depend mainly on the U.S. army.
At the home of a former Ba’ath supporter in the Mohandessin neighborhood of Baghdad, opinion on foreign forces has changed unexpectedly from the days right after the invasion last year. Then the family had roundly condemned the removal of Saddam Hussein by the Americans.
Now they talk a different language. “The foreign troops may have to stay for a while to help with security,” said the father, a retired government employee who did not want to be named. “We are all just so fed up with the situation, the violence and chaos. It has to be stopped.”
He also saw Iyad Allawi as a good choice for prime minister. “Allawi is a politician of the old school. He served under Saddam, he was Ba’ath.”
The strong desire for security and stability may be a double-edged sword for the new government. On the one hand it provides an opportunity to prove itself. On the other, it is more than likely that the population will turn against it if the ministers fail to improve the situation.
The government thinks it can use the nature of the enemy to garner support among the population. “It is very simple,” said al-Ali. “Do the Iraqi people want to be ruled by criminals who slaughter our own population and cut the throats of foreigners, or do they want a responsible government with elections in the near future? There is really no choice.”
The problem is of course that the opponents of the government will escalate their efforts to see it fail, as has happened already in the run-up to the handover. And it is hard to see how the newly formed, inexperienced and somewhat under-equipped Iraqi government can succeed where the U.S. forces failed.
Al-Ali had the same response to this as most ordinary Iraqis who responded to this question. “We know our own people. Iraqis are much better at controlling Iraqis than outsiders are. We can succeed.”