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US Prepares for New Relationship with Sovereign Iraq - 2004-06-21

Iraqis are busy preparing for the handover of sovereignty that takes effect on July 1. So are American officials who will be working with them.

"Don't think of July 1st as independence day," said Iraqi human rights activist Ghassan al-Atiyah. "This is symbolic."

Mr. al-Atiyah says the handover of power to Iraqis does not mean an end to what he calls a strategic marriage between Iraq's interim government and Washington.

But with latest polls showing that nine out of 10 Iraqis do not trust the U.S.-led coalition, Mr. al-Atiyah says, both sides need to make adjustments in the relationship. He says Iraq needs U.S. help, not U.S. domination, and U.S. officials must reflect that in their dealings with Iraq.

"They know they have to review their policies. And we Iraqis made our own mistakes," said Mr. al-Atiyah. "It's time to put our heads together and move ahead. We need the U.S. We need their help, in the past, and now, and in the future, as a partner, as a facilitator, not to replace ruling our country."

State Department official Frank Ricciardone agrees. Mr. Ricciardone is in charge of coordinating the U.S. side of the transition, including the set-up and staffing of what will be the the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

"We want Iraqis to know that we really mean this," he said. "We are not going to run that country anymore. We cannot. We will not."

Mr. Ricciardone says the U.S. government will provide advisers, expert consultants or whatever else Iraq requires in the same way its embassies coordinate with other states around the world.

But he recognizes that American diplomats will also have to repair the battered image of the U.S.-led coalition's occupation. "It's going to be incumbent on us, as the American diplomatic mission there, as do all of the foreigners, to find ways of having the most intimate conversation with the Iraqi people, and on an individual everyday level, and on a mass level, every single day that we're there as guests in that country," he said.

In his recent speech about the power transfer, President Bush listed five steps Washington will take to foster Iraq's democratic transition.

"We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government, help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, encourage more international support and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people," the president said.

Iraqi businessman Rubar Sandi considers security the number one concern. Without it, he says, foreign businesses are reluctant to invest in Iraq's future. And, so are Iraqis.

He does not expect the attacks on government officials, oil pipelines and power facilities, police training centers and foreign contractors to let up any time soon.

"It won't get better right away. It might get worse to show they're there, the bad guys," he said. "But I don't think it will make too much difference. It's not a magic touch or a key, that now you open the door, and it's totally a new chapter."

State Department Transition Coordinator Ricciardone says much of the U.S. assistance during the transition will focus on Iraq's security.

"And that means not only good police training, but training for the National Guard, training for the Army, so that the army will understand what national defense is all about," he said. "It's not about protecting a dictator, or allegiance to an individual anymore, who takes all the power to himself for his family and friends. It's protecting the country, protecting the constitution, protecting the people."

Businessman Rubar Sandi also stresses the urgent need to create jobs and a stable business environment.

"People are beginning to understand and beginning to accept that it is a new era and their responsibility to rebuild a country," he said. "The Americans freed them. It's up to the Iraqis to rebuild their country. "

Mr. Ricciardone says the U.S. administration, like other foreign trading partners, will be there to help, but no longer to control foreign contracts and business arrangements.

Still, most Iraqis expect the U.S. administration to continue to wield influence beyond the July 1 transfer of power. Middle East analysts point out the U.S. government has set Iraq as a potential model for democratic reform, and cannot allow it to fail.