So in the end, America’s enemies set the date. The handover of "full sovereignty" was secretly brought forward so that the ex-CIA intelligence officer who is now "Prime Minister" of Iraq could avoid another bloody offensive by America’s enemies. What is supposed to be the most important date in Iraq’s modern history was changed–like a birthday party–because it might rain on Wednesday.
Pitiful is the word that comes to mind. Here we were, handing "full sovereignty" to the people of Iraq ? "full", of course, providing we forget the 160,000 foreign soldiers whom the Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, has apparently asked to stay in Iraq, "full" providing we forget the 3,000 US diplomats in Baghdad who will constitute the largest US embassy in the world–without even telling the Iraqi people that we had changed the date.
Few, save of course for the Iraqis, understood the cruellest paradox of the event. For it was the new "Iraqi Foreign Minister" who chose to leak the "bringing forward" of sovereignty in Iraq at the Nato summit in Turkey. Thus was this new and unprecedented date in modern Iraqi history announced not in Baghdad but in the capital of the former Ottoman empire which once ruled Iraq. Alice in Wonderland could not have improved on this. The looking-glass reflects all the way from Baghdad to Washington. In its savage irony Ibsen might have done justice to the occasion. After all, what could have been more familiar than Allawi’s appeal to Iraqis to fight "the enemies of the people".
Power was ritually handed over in legal documents. The new government was sworn in on the Koran. The US proconsul, Paul Bremer, formally shook hands with Mr Allawi and boarded his C130 to fly home, guarded by special forces men in shades.
It was difficult to remember that Mr Bremer was touted for his job more than a year ago because he was a "counter-terrorism" expert and that what he referred to as "dead-enders" [Baathist diehards] managed to turn almost an entire Iraqi population against the United States and Britain in just a few months.
According to Mr Allawi yesterday, the "dead-enders" and the "remnants" belonged to Saddam Hussein. Those of them who had not committed crimes could even join the new authorities, he announced. But it had already been made clear that Mr Allawi was pondering martial law, the sine qua non of every Arab dictatorship–this time to be imposed on an Arab state, heaven spare us, by a Western army led by an avowedly Christian government. Who was the last man to impose martial law on Iraqis? Wasn’t it Saddam Hussein?
No, Mr Allawi and his chums–along with the convicted fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, now dug up from his political grave–are not little Saddams. Indeed, it is Mr Allawi’s claim to fame that he was a Saddam loyalist until he upped sticks and fled to London. He almost got assassinated by Saddam before–this by his own admission–he took the King’s shilling (MI6) and the CIA’s dollar and (again by his own admission) that of 12 other intelligence agencies.
Yesterday, Mr Allawi was talking of a "historical day". As far as the new Prime Minister is concerned, Iraqis were about to enjoy "full sovereignty". Those of us who put quotation marks around "liberation" in 2003 should now put quotation marks around "sovereignty". Doing this has become part of the reporting of the Middle East.
Perhaps most remarkable of all was Mr Allawi’s demand that "mercenaries who come to Iraq from foreign countries" should leave Iraq. There are, of course, 80,000 Western "mercenaries" in Iraq, most of them wearing Western clothes. But of course, Mr Allawi was not speaking of these men. And herein lies a problem. There must come a time when we have to give up cliches, when we have to give up on the American nightmares. Al-Qa’ida does not have an original branch in Iraq. And the Iraqis didn’t plan September 11, 2001.
But not to worry. The new Iraqi Prime Minister will soon introduce martial law –journalists who think they can escape criticism should reflect again–and thus we can all wait for a request for more American troops "at the formal request of the provincial government". Wait, then, for the first expulsion of journalists. Democratic elections will be held in Iraq, "it is hoped", within five months. Well, we shall see.
True, Mr Allawi promises a future Iraq with "a society of all Iraqis, irrespective of ethnicity, colour or religion." But the Iraqis who Mr Allawi promises to protect do not apparently include the 5,000 prisoners held in America’s dubious camps across Iraq. At least 3,000 will remain captive, largely of the Americans.
There were many promises yesterday of a trial for Saddam Hussein and his colleagues although, not surprisingly, Iraqi lawyers felt there were other, more pressing issues to pursue. Paul Bremer abolished the death penalty in Iraq but Mr Allawi seems to want to bring it back. Asked whether Saddam might be executed, he remarked that "this is again something which is being debated in the judicial system in Iraq". He said, however, that he was in favour of capital punishment.
According to American sources, the United States has been putting pressure on Mr Allawi for at least two weeks in the hope that his ministries could–in theory, at least–function without US support. American advisers had already been withdrawn from many Iraqi institutions. Yet when he appeared yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke with words that might have come from George Bush. He warned "the forces of terror" that "we will not forget who stood with us and against us in this crisis". As the new "Cabinet" stepped forward to place their hands on the Koran, a large number of Iraqi flags lined the podium behind them–though not the strange blue and white banner which the former Interim Council had concocted two months ago.
The real problem for Mr Allawi is that he has to be an independent leader while relying upon an alien, Western and Christian force to support his rule. He cannot produce security without the assistance of an alien force. But he has no control over that force. He cannot order the Americans to leave. But here is the real question.
If Mr Allawi really intends to lead Iraq, the most powerful demonstration he could show would be to demand the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces. Within hours, he would be a hero in Iraq. The Americans would be finished. But does Mr Allawi have the wit to realise that this ultimate step might save him? Who can tell, at this critical and bloody hour? America’s satraps have been known to turn traitor before. Yet the whole painful equation in Baghdad now is that Mr Allawi is relying on the one army whose evacuation he needs to prove his own credibility.
The Western occupying powers have left behind a raft of dubious legislation. Much of it allows Western companies to suck up the profits of reconstruction –an issue over which the Iraqis had no choice–and many people in the country have no interest in continuing Mr Bremer’s occupation laws. No one, for example, is likely to spend a month in jail for driving without a licence. But why should US and other Western businesses have legal immunity from Iraqi law? When a British or American mercenary shoots dead an Iraqi, he cannot be taken to an Iraqi court.
But Mr Allawi relies upon these same mercenaries. Which is why, sadly and inevitably, he and his government will fail. The insurgency now has a life of its own–and a plan. If it can continue to maintain an independence struggle for nationalists within the Sunni Muslim areas north and west of Baghdad, then the Sunnis may also claim that they have the right to form Iraq’s first independent, post-American government.