- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

For all those expecting miracles to accompany the Great Handover of Sovereignty back to Iraqis on June 30, here is a word of caution: Don’t hold your breath.

The much-hyped, much-anticipated date will by no means be a “Hong Kong-styled event,” as Dan Senor, the American spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, recently hinted in a television interview.

That’s regrettable, because the day Iraq regains its sovereignty should one of great celebration, and a “Hong Kong-style event,” with all the pomp and circumstance demanded by such a historic occasion. The country reclaiming self-government after more than a year of U.S.-British occupation and nearly 30 years of Ba’athist dictatorial rule should be cause enough for great rejoicing.

But for the great majority of Iraqis, life after the handover will continue very much as before, burdened with daily problems that, for many, are compounded by the war’s aftermath and its difficulties. The average Iraqi will wake up July 1 to face the same predicaments he faced the previous day.

There will be some minor differences:

• The Stars and Stripes will be replaced by the Iraqi flag over official buildings.

• The Coalition Provisional Authority will dissolve itself and be replaced by the interim Iraqi government.

• A mega-U.S. Embassy headed by career diplomat John Negroponte will be established.

• And U.S., British and other coalition forces lower their profiles, allowing Iraqi security forces to step up. But even the latter will not happen immediately. Over time, U.S. and British troops will withdraw to out of-the-way encampments, becoming rapid reaction forces to back Iraqi forces as needed.

There might also be some major changes, with Iraqis waking to martial law, a possibility Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is contemplating amid the rise of terror activity. An Iraqi official said, “We would not hesitate to declare martial law.”

Still, on the morning of July 1, electricity shortages, unemployment, attacks on oil installations, insecurity, roadside bombs and a rising threat of foreign Islamist insurgents infiltrating through its long and porous borders will continue plaguing Iraq. Some sources believe U.S. troops could be deployed along those borders to prevent that.

Intelligence sources tell United Press International foreign Islamist fighters increasingly enter Iraq. The foreign jihadis have almost completely taken control of Fallujah, say those sources, who fear this will further destabilize the handover.

Current and former intelligence sources say, though some jihadis continue trickling in across the Syrian border, Yemen and Red Sea ports are becoming major staging areas for terrorists who then trek across Saudi Arabia into Iraq.

Unfortunately, the June 30 date will pass — much as President George W. Bush predicted — preceded and followed by greater violence. Terrorist acts, such as the despicable and ignominious kidnapping and beheading of foreign nationals, and more suicide and car bombings will continue claiming innocent lives. This trend will likely continue, at least until the Iraqi government becomes powerful enough to clamp down.

That will not be easy by any means. Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, the Jordanian terrorist believed responsible for the beheadings of several foreign hostages, released a voice recording through an Islamist Internet Web site last Wednesday calling for the assassination of Prime Minister Allawi. All indications point to an escalation between the interim Iraqi government and the al Qaeda-backed insurrectionists, who will try to undermine government preparations for elections next year.

Having “lost” Afghanistan to the U.S. invasion, al Qaeda may want to make a new stand in Iraq. This could explain the migration of jihadi fighters — the belief they can establish a new foothold.

When we look back, it may seem June 30 could have been a landmark date, were it not for a number of substantial miscalculations in the Pentagon planning of the post-invasion period. Errors included dissolving the Iraqi army, cashiering the Ba’athist bureaucracy and the midlevel public servants who made the country run on a daily basis, misjudging the number of troops needed for the post-invasion occupation, and allowing looting and rioting in the early days of the occupation.

These and other mishaps, such as the Fallujah siege and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, soured the situation quickly and caused America to be perceived as an occupier instead of a liberator, as it should have been. So the June 30 handover will more resemble Israel’s planned unilateral Gaza withdrawal than Britain’s pompous exit from its former Asian colony.

When Great Britain pulled out of Hong Kong, the Crown Colony’s economic and political situation was stable. The Chinese, unlike the Iraqis, were fully prepared to replace the departing leadership.

Iraq presents a very different picture. Except that Saddam Hussein, his megalomaniac sons and malicious band of Ba’athist thugs have been distanced from power, Iraq finds itself in worse shape today than at the start of the war. Now Islamist terrorists threaten its fragile stability.

The only comparison between Hong Kong and Iraq may be the fireworks that accompanied the handover of Hong Kong and the fireworks that will mark the June 30 handover in Iraq. But chances are Iraq’s fireworks will be real.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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