It may have lacked the drama of the helicopter evacuation of the last Americans from the US embassy roof in Saigon, but the American “handover of sovereignty” in Iraq Monday was at least as humiliating as that last American retreat almost 30 years earlier.
Instead of a brass band, marching Iraqi troops, and a salute by American fusiliers, we had a secret ceremony featuring U.S. occupation viceroy L. Paul Bremer and what was described in the press as a “handful” of Iraqi officials, conducted deep within the high walls of the U.S. compound in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone.
Even the timing of the ceremony was secretly moved up by two days.
Why all the secrecy? The U.S. and the provisional Iraqi government were so afraid of attacks by the mushrooming insurgency that they decided to surprise Iraqi rebels by conducting the handover early.
And so we had Bremer handing off authority to his handpicked Iraqi replacements and then rushing off to the Baghdad airport, flak Don Senor and staff in tow, to fly back to the U.S. in a C130 military cargo plane only two hours later. No celebratory dinner. No evening fireworks or public flag-raising. Significantly, the new real power in Iraq, John Negroponte, flew into Baghdad only hours later (again to no ceremonial welcome) to take up his ambassador post, from which he will direct the affairs of state through the network of U.S. “advisers,” who will be working in all the offices of the new Iraqi government.
How must the families of the nearly 1000 American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq, and the 140,000 troops still ducking RPGs and AK-47 rounds over there, feel to see the US government so anxious about security in Iraq 15 months after the invasion that leading officials have to sneak in and out of the country unannounced, and hold symbolically important ceremonies in secret?
The real truth about who is now running the country was revealed after the little secret ceremony, when invited journalists in attendance attempted to interview Iraq’s presumed new leaders. While those leaders were apparently anxious to talk, the reporters were hustled away by American security officers. If they want interviews in the future, they’ll have to make arrangements through the Pentagon, which is handling the job of public relations for the new Iraqi government.
Where the real power lies was also revealed in the fact that the same 140,000 U.S. troops who have been occupying Iraq for the past year or more are still in place, doing exactly what they’ve been doing: chasing insurgents, kicking in doors, bombing neighborhoods, killing civilians, and dying.
It will be a while yet before the helicopters evacuate the last Americans off the roof of the huge new Iraqi embassy being constructed for Negroponte and his legions (it’s the largest US embassy in the world, because it needs to accommodate the behind-the-scenes government of Iraq, and of course a huge CIA staff).
The Bush administration desperately hopes that second humiliation will come sometime after the November election.
The mainstream media certainly continue to try their best to help that happen. Most TV news coverage focused on the minimalist handover ceremony itself, or on President Bush’s little note (“Let freedom reign”) scrawled in the margin of a message announcing the successful handover that was passed to him during a head-of-state confab in Turkey. The humiliating circumstances of the Green Zone proceeding were soft-pedaled. The N.Y. Times, in a Baghdad-datelined article by Dexter Filkins, actually credited the secret ceremony with having been “designed to foil attacks by guerrilla insurgents,”as though it had been a clever bit of gamesmanship, not an act of desperation. Filkins went on to observe that Bremer had “arrived last May (sic-he meant May of 2003) to a country in flames,” but failed to make the obvious parallel observation that the leader of the American occupation was also leaving a country still literally in flames.
But whatever efforts the American media might make on Bush’s behalf, the image of Bremer holding a clandestine handover ceremony to a puppet government and then scuttling off back to his New York City consultancy, his plane switching on missile avoidance systems to avoid being shot at during takeoff (the fate of an earlier flight a day before), has to have been embarrassing enough.
The new U.S. embassy would be well advised to keep a fleet of evacuation helicopters gassed up and ready.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of Counterpunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press.