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Returning Iraq's Sovereignty - 2004-05-25

In Baghdad and in Washington, the clocks are ticking toward June 30th, the date the Coalition Provisional Authority turns over authority in Iraq to an appointed interim government.

President Bush, who on Monday launched a series of major policy speeches on Iraq, calls that day the point at which Iraqis begin to forge a new government and society. "On June 30th, our coalition will transfer its authority to a sovereign Iraqi government." Mr. Bush added "With the assistance of the United Nations and our coalition, Iraqi citizens are currently making important decisions about the nature and scope of the interim government."

The caretaker government will be operating under an interim de-facto constitution that the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) signed March 8. Officially termed the "Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period," it provides a framework for running the country until a new permanent constitution can be written by an elected government.

This law creates structures similar to those in the United States: executive, legislative and judicial branches, which function independently. The transitional law also echoes the U.S. tradition of a military that answers to civilian authority. Other sections guarantee freedom of thought and religion, privacy, and political expression, much the same as the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. There is a provision that bans the use of all forms of torture in any investigation, including security and intelligence probes.

One significant difference from the U.S. model is the establishment of an official religion, Islam, and a provision that no law enacted will contradict the principles of Islam.

Between now and June 30th, the pressing issue is selecting the officials who will head this transitional government. That task is in the hands of United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who expresses confidence that he will meet the quickly-approaching deadline. The U.N. official says "We do believe that it will be possible to identify by the end of May a group of people, respected and accepted by Iraqis across the country, to form this caretaker government."

U.N. envoy Brahimi is expected to select officials reflecting Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious factions. Jason Burke, Middle East expert for the London Observer newspaper and a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine, offers one scenario for filling the top governmental slots. "The Shi'as are clearly the largest group. It is likely that they will have the presidency." Mr. Burke adds "Then, we can expect a Sunni prime minister (and) a Kurdish Vice President."

Reportedly, U.N. envoy Brahimi wants to fill the transitional government with so-called technocrats, people who know how to run ministries and agencies. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington asserts that any politicians who join the caretaker government should not be a part of the permanent one. "They should not be allowed to run for office in January, in the main nationwide elections," he says, "because we don't want the government to worry about winning political favor or currying alliances."

RAND corporation analyst Jim Dobbins says the interim government officials will have two primary responsibilities. "The intent is that the government will focus largely on maintaining the basic services to the population and preparing for elections."

Along with making sure the lights are on and schools are open, the transitional law gives the interim government responsibility for creating and enforcing national security policies. This despite the fact that the United States and its military partners plan to remain in Iraq to provide security unless the new government asks them to leave. Johns Hopkins University professor Frank Fukuyama explains why the transitional law made security an Iraqi responsibility. "You could not solve, ultimately, the security problem if it were perceived as a continuing American occupation," he says, "rather than American assistance to a new democratic Iraqi government."

On Monday, the United States and Britain introduced a United Nations resolution endorsing Iraq's interim government sovereignty. The measure seeks U.N. endorsement for keeping coalition forces in the country for at least one year, unless the Iraqis ask them to leave. The resolution also gives Iraq control of its oil revenues, though with the outside oversight of an auditing board.

June 30th approaches with great expectations by both the Iraqis and the coalition partners. There are clearly great difficulties ahead and unforeseen events that will occur before its known whether those expectations can be realized.