Puppets or Players?

The whole event at the old Saddam Presidential Museum was very New Iraq, with a twist. The smell of raw human waste wafted up from the flooded toilets and permeated the entire building; Coalition Provisional Authority advance men said they had tried unsuccessfully for two weeks to get the plumbing fixed. High overhead, the Saddam Clock Tower was stuck at 8:05, still bombed out more than a year after the "shock and awe" military campaign.

It was May 31, and everyone thought the inauguration of Iraq's new interim government, convened by the CPA in great secrecy, would be over in the Green Zone, so that's where the mortars were hitting; still, close enough to hear them. In the museum's conference hall, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi introduced Iraq's nominal new leaders. And in the hour of speeches that followed, there was barely a single mention of the words "United States" or "America." Ambassador Paul Bremer, the CPA head, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. military commander, were in the audience, but for once neither of them took the stage. U.S. troops stayed discreetly outside, Blackwater security guards skulked in the hallways, fiddling with their earpieces. This was the new government's first foretaste of sovereignty, and it was meant to at least look like a thoroughly Iraqi affair, solemn and dignified. Then they introduced all 32 cabinet members and when minister of electricity Aiham al-Samarraie was named, he stood up and everyone started laughing. "What electricity?" someone shouted.

It's easy enough to lampoon the effort to create an interim government in Iraq as a sort of puppet show in which the characters had to be rearranged on the stage while the audience pretended not to notice how tangled the strings got. First an independent Shia scientist, Hussain Shahristani, had been touted as the likely candidate for prime minister, the top job; a non-political independent, he was the favorite of the U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. But oops, a groundswell from the uppity (but American-appointed) Governing Council arose for Iyad Allawi. Asked if the Americans and their candidates weren't dominating the process, the Americans demurred. "Brahimi is taking the lead on this," insisted a coalition spokesman. Added a GC staffer: "Iyad Allawi is no puppet," though the new prime minister is best known for his CIA-supported failed coup against Saddam in 1996. "Really." Adnan Pachachi, another American-backed exile, was supposed to be offered the post of president, a ceremonial job but the head of state, so he could refuse it and pass the baton to the GC's favorite, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer. But Yawer got it directly, and Pachachi took to the airways to say he was torpedoed by rivals who said he was in the pockets of the Americans. Other GC members say they were worried Pachachi would have refused to refuse it. When the dust settled, three out of four of the top jobs went to GC members, and the rest of the GC members become Supreme Commissioners in charge of creating a future National Assembly. The new government comprises 17 Shias, eight Sunnis and six Kurds, and fully half of them had been long-time exiles in either America or Britain. "If people stop to reflect on today's realities," Brahimi said at a press conference afterwards, "I very much hope that they will see that even though this government may not reflect everything they had hoped for, it was the best outcome that was possible at this time." Weary of suggestions that the Americans had pushed him around, he added, only half in jest, let's face it, "Bremer is the dictator of Iraq."

But for all that, the interim government went down surprisingly well with the people who will count most: Iraqis. "It depends upon whether they work with the Iraqi people, or with the Americans," says Mustansiriya University student Rami Zaki, 23. "The new government is hopeful," says Sarmad Hussein, 29, another student at that hotbed of anti-Americanism. "Yawer and Allawi are descended from rich and noble families, unlike the former president." Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, issued a statement that he was willing to give it a chance. And unlike the GC, this new body seems likely to get at least some real power come the official transfer of sovereignty on June 30. The details of a Security Council resolution ending the occupation are yet to be hashed out, particularly on the issue of Iraqi control over the American military, which will stay on as the major component of a "multinational force." (France and other Security Council members are pushing for an Iraqi veto over major military operations-a measure Washington opposes.) But Allawi and his cabinet will be a lot more than the feckless debating society, and perennial target set for the resistance, that the GC has been.

In the end, it all proved to be a sobering lesson in the limits of American power. Bremer may be the de facto dictator of Iraq, but as Brahimi also trenchantly observed, "he's leaving on the 30th, so it's all right." Consider Fallujah. The Marines last month had to abandon an offensive aimed at capturing the attackers who killed four Blackwater security guards and desecrated their bodies on March 31. So many people died as the result of determined resistance there that it inflamed the country, and attacks on American troops trebled. Finally Iraqi officials, including some of those in the new government, negotiated a withdrawal to the edge of the city. As a face-saving measure, security in the city was turned over to the Fallujah Brigade, an Iraqi army unit officered by former Saddam-era generals. But it proved to be openly sympathetic to the resistance, and mujahideen roam the city's streets freely--though for the sake of form they only go out armed during the night. Down south, a rebellion by the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army was on the boil in the holy city of Najaf and nearby Kufa, with American troops trying to capture and kill Sadr. So confident were the Coalition forces, in fact, that they had preprinted leaflets in Arabic showing Sadr's face and announcing that he had been killed resisting capture by the Iraqi police. The leaflets got out, but Sadr got away -very much alive. Finally, Shia religious leaders negotiated a standdown there too, providing for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Najaf and the return of Iraqi police in the place of the Mahdi Army; it took place last Friday and initially seemed to be holding. Sadr is wanted for the murder of a rival Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Majid al-Khoei, and military spokesmen had vowed repeatedly to "kill or capture" him. That rhetoric though has been shelved lately with much softer circumlocutions.

At the same time, the insurgency has continued hit and run operations throughout the country, with an average of 40 attacks on U.S. troops every day. More than 600 Americans have died in the 14-month-old war so far, and a third of those lost their lives in just the past two months. Last Friday, five Americans were killed just in Sadr City, the huge Shia slum in Baghdad; on Saturday, two more died near the same place. NEWSWEEK photographer Robert King, embedded with the First Cavalry there, went on a night patrol last week and his platoon was hit by ten RPGs and four roadside bombs. When they returned to their base, six mortars were lobbed in after them. No one was hurt that time, but nor did anyone venture outside their armored Bradleys. The rampant violence has all but stalled many reconstruction projects, including vital sectors like electricity and oil; American contractors especially are spending growing proportions of their budgets on security. Westerners and even Iraqis working for them are attacked on sight in Baghdad, on the highways throughout the country, and even sometimes in otherwise pro-American Kurdish cities in the north. For all but the most heavily armed--and preferably armored--travelers, the south of the country is effectively cut off from Baghdad by the threat of ambushes. To reach the major Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, for instance, travelers have to pass through the chokepoints of Iskandariya and Mahmudiya, where half a dozen carloads of foreigners have been ambushed just in the past 10 days.

The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal greatly worsened this situation; it has become Iraq's My Lai massacre in the effect it has had on public opinion and American prestige. Even before Abu Ghraib, and before the Fallujah offensive, opinion polling by Gallup in Iraq in early April showed only minority support among Iraqis for the occupation. There haven't been any credible polls released since, but it's certainly far worse now. When Iraqis refer to the now-infamous picture of a cloaked prisoner standing on a box of Meals Ready to Eat, with electrodes attached to his outstretched arms and his penis, they call it "The Statue of Liberty."

So it was a wise move by Bremer and Sanchez not to get up and introduce this new Iraqi government that American blood and treasure had brought to the country--they could only have hurt it by doing so. No one's kidding themselves that the Americans are suddenly going away on June 30. They're not even going to give up their headquarters in Saddam's old Republican Palace in the Green Zone; it'll just convert from Coalition headquarters to overflow for the American Embassy, which will overnight become by far the world's largest embassy. And however much control the U.N. gives the Iraqi government over the American military, in the end 138,000 U.S. troops will answer to Washington, not Baghdad. And no one has seriously suggested they would likely to be able to leave anytime soon, certainly not before a new government is elected next January, and probably much later. "Any premature departure of international forces would lead to chaos and the real possibility of a civil war in Iraq," Hoshyar Zebari, the new foreign minister, told the Security Council last week. Perhaps as important, the new Iraqi government will still be dependent on the Americans for the balance of some $13 billion in reconstruction aid. Bremer will be gone, and Americans will no longer rule by decree. But the U.S. ambassador-designate, John Negroponte, has already been an American proconsul once, in Central America, and little in his mindset suggests he'll be anything less here.

Still, appearances count for a lot, and they seem to be making the right impression on many Iraqis, at least for now. At least none of the new government's members have been implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal; and if they get up and give lectures in human rights, it'll be in Iraqi-accented Arabic rather than New England-accented English. Even some of the resistance forces appear guardedly hopeful. "By removing the label of occupation,'' Zebari said, ''we will deprive the terrorists and antidemocratic forces of a rallying point to foment violence in our country.'' If the Iraqis choose to overlook the tangle of strings above the stage--as one does at puppet shows--at least it may give these new players a chance to show what they can do.