On Monday, while most Americans were still sleeping, sovereignty to Iraq was transferred to its newly formed government — two days earlier than originally planned. Since then, ex-dictator Saddam Hussein and 11 other former high-ranking officials have been handed over to Iraq, as well.
Yet, while official power has been transferred, the U.S. military will still be the main force ensuring security. In short, the actions this week may prove historic some day, but for now the day-to-day proceedings do not change much for either American troops or the average Iraqi. The United States is likely to stay in the region for months, if not years, to come.
Even Saddam himself will remain under protection of U.S. security forces, as Iraqis felt they could not ensure his secure detention.
The low-key handover ceremony, held in a room with bare white walls, no pomp, no flag waving and certainly no parades, was hardly the glorious outcome the Bush administration was planning on when they said Iraqis would welcome us “with flowers.”
Safely tucked away in the secure Green Zone in Baghdad — since nicknamed “CIA Empire” by locals — the ceremony that took place was described by journalists present as “very cloak-and-dagger” and as a “stealth handover.” While most spoke of “guarded optimism” and the official explanation for the handover taking place ahead of schedule was to “thwart terrorist attacks” one could not help but get the impression it was also designed not to draw too much attention from American voters.
Since the invasion in March 2003, the road to a free Iraq has taken several detours. After prematurely declaring “major combat operations over” on May 1 last year, attacks by insurgents have become an almost-daily occurrence and several regions have repeatedly fallen under control of insurgents such as Moqtada Sadr.
Due to the power vacuum that was created once Saddam’s regime fell and the standing military was disbanded, an action many now regret, al-Qaida, as well as other groups, have moved into Iraq through the porous borders. Security forces remain untrained, badly equipped and sparse. Even former administrator Paul Bremer acknowledged that he wrongly focused too much on “numbers instead of quality” when hiring security forces and police.
Handing power over to local authorities is a step that should not be taken lightly. While the presidential election is looming and pressure to bring troops home is mounting, the administration has to be careful not to hasten things in order to be heralded back home.
In past weeks, a military strategy was enacted to employ ex-Baath party members — the party that controlled Iraq with an iron grip under Saddam — to control the local militia. Such actions are reminiscent of errors made in Vietnam. When support at home was waning, President Richard Nixon quickly enacted a policy of “Vietnamization,” a strategy that was meant to gradually replace U.S. troops in Vietnam with South Vietnamese troops. The policy failed miserably and sent the region into political and economic chaos it has not since recovered from.
NATO commitment to train troops will help significantly, but the primary burden will remain on U.S. troops, which are already serving more time than initially planned. But a hurried “Iraquification” would result in an unstable Iraqi state, which could inflict more harm to the region than Saddam’s cruel, yet contained regime could ever have inflicted.