Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Uncertain future for kaleidoscopic Iraq
Two months ago in Baghdad a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee and killed an American soldier. After the soldier was evacuated, the Humvee was set on fire by local civilians, and children poured out of school to celebrate. Generally, such a sequence of events is so routine that it no longer generates headlines.
This one did for a couple of reasons. Firing at rooftop snipers, American soldiers killed at least one unarmed teenager, although locals claimed four or five children were killed. And The New York Times decided to use the story as an example of how difficult, if not impossible, it has become to tell fact from fiction in Iraq. "Reality, at this pivotal moment for the Americans in Iraq, is a kaleidoscope of versions," the Times reporter wrote from the scene. He admitted along the way that Western reporters barely venture beyond their bunker-like hotels anymore. It's too dangerous. And, when they do, they never linger long enough to sift truth out of fog.
That "kaleidoscope of versions" came to mind Monday as the American-led coalition officially handed power over to an interim Iraqi government. It's difficult to say what a transfer of power really means when actual power remains in the hands of the American occupation forces, when the script of the hand-over was written in American ink and even the Iraqi prime minister's first words were ominously cribbed from the Bush lexicon: "We will not forget who stood with us and against us in this crisis," Iyad Allawi said. It is difficult to say whether the transfer means anything at all when every decision the Iraqi interim government makes will first have to be vetted by the Bush administration, as most decisions will still be largely financed with American taxpayer money and enforced with American might.
It's especially difficult to say what President Bush had in mind when he declared Monday that "the world witnessed the arrival of a full sovereign and free Iraq." The ceremony took place in a bunker of its own, secretly, hurriedly, fearfully, with barely 30 people present. (The swear-ing-in of the prime minister took place later, live on television.) If it is confidence, optimism and stability the new government aims to project, it has failed already.
The ceremony was supposed to take place Wednesday. It was moved up two days hopefully to trump an expected bloodbath by insurgents doing their best to torpedo and mock the American version of an independent Iraq. But the insurgency didn't have to lift a finger — or a rocket-launcher — to make its point: Iraq is still very much at the mercy of chaos and uncertainties the coalition has been unable to put down. It is a nation "sovereign and free" in name only. No sooner had L. Paul Bremmer, the occupation's American viceroy, slipped out of Iraq than the country greeted the hand over with lockdowns to the sound of heightened U.S. patrols. Sovereignty and freedom have never looked so grim.
Martial law could be the new government's first order of business, thus, immediately dispensing with the first illusion of democracy. Keeping its own disparate voices together — let alone Iraq as a whole — will be the new government's other daunting task. Kurds are none too thrilled at being part of the new Iraqi melting pot. And Shiites and Sunnis have yet to show how they can coexist politically.
On paper, at least, the hand over looks hopeful, like the note President Bush scribbled on the sheet of paper handed to him at a NATO summit Monday, telling him of the done deal. "Let freedom reign," Bush wrote. But all kaleidoscopic versions of reality aside, freedom's ring for Iraqis is still rudely, predictably muted.