The End of the Beginning In Iraq?

The tidy green grass, the sun beating down on the back of the neck, excited spectators spilling onto the track encircling the field—it felt a bit like a high-school field day. On Thursday, the southern Iraqi province of Muthanna celebrated the handover of security responsibilities from coalition forces to Iraqi troops in a soccer stadium outside the provincial capital of Samawah. The first transition of its kind in the country—Coalition troops will remain in Muthanna, but only in an advisory role—the ceremony attracted all types of local dignitaries and tribal leaders. Even Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made the trip from Baghdad, about 150 miles to the north.

Beaming Iraqi soldiers walked hand in hand along the field's fringes in the pleasant morning heat (at least for Iraq in July, when temperatures can sometimes hit 130 degrees). Curious spectators pushed through the crowds to catch the dance performances by the splendidly dressed local tribesmen. Up in the stands, small groups of Iraqi soldiers—also looking smart in their now-meaningful uniforms—watched the ceremony in the comfort of the shade. The P.M.'s private security detail showed off their new matching gray sneakers on the track below while keeping an eye out for their boss.

On the opposite side of the field, units of young soldiers stood proudly in formation as they listened to Maliki address the people of the province. "I warn you that the terrorists will do their utmost to make this experiment fail, but we promise that we will stand beside you and give you all the support you need," he declared. British Maj. Gen. John Cooper, commander of the Multi National Division (South East), was even more optimistic in his speech. "Yours is a peaceful province," he said. "Muthanna is leading the way towards a peaceful and stable Iraq."

Perhaps. But as many Iraqis are fond of saying, shwey-shwey —little by little. Coalition-led water treatment projects and road and bridge projects in the province have proved successful, but even putting on the ceremony in Samawah seemed to present some real challenges. When Maliki arrived shortly after 9 a.m., a small crowd on the track began to push and shove as he made his way to his seat in a tent to the side of the track. The Iraqi military stepped in quickly to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Test one: passed.

Moving the increasingly nosy bystanders to clear a corridor on the grass behind the speakers' podium, however, proved a bit too difficult to achieve in one go. Test two: failed. And then there was the PA system. Having already proved the unreliability of Muthanna's power supply by cutting out during several earlier speeches, the creaky audio system at times reduced Maliki's voice to a feint croak reminiscent of Yoda. "How are they going to run the [province's] infrastructure if they can't get the mics to work?" a Coalition soldier asked me as Maliki mumbled away. To the P.M.'s credit, he persevered and kept on speaking despite the fact that few in the crowd could hear a word he was saying.

If Muthanna is to be a model for the rest of Iraq, it will have to persevere, too—and make itself heard throughout the country. With sectarian violence engulfing cities like Baghdad and Basra—earlier this week, a three-day spate of suicide attacks, car bombs and militia murders left more than 100 dead in Baghdad alone —this Shia-dominated province with a population of 550,000 will have to prove that it can indeed keep the peace without the round-the-clock support of Coalition forces. Brig. Zwadi Shareef Hussein, in charge of Muthanna's military, believes his men can. "We're ready to do our job," he said shortly after the festivities had ended and the crowds had dispersed. Now he's got the chance to live up to his promises. But whether the rest of Iraq will get such an opportunity in the near future is another matter altogether.

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