Dickey: Iraq Govt. Needs Respect

It's just two years ago this week—two very long years—that President George W. Bush's handpicked proconsul cut and ran out of Iraq. Instead of a grand ceremony handing over something called "sovereignty" to the U.S.-appointed government of Ayad Allawi, there was a low-key, almost secretive handshake and a very quick set of brief remarks before Paul Bremer jumped on a plane and got the hell out. He didn't want to attract too much attention, or mortar shells from the growing insurgency.

It was an extraordinary moment, fraught with the arrogant hyperbole and arrant hypocrisy that has characterized this adventure all along. According to Bremer, the idea for the stealth ceremony before the announced date came from President George W. Bush, via Condoleezza Rice, who was then his national-security adviser. She's quoted in Bremer's book, "My Year in Iraq," saying, "The president is trying to 'wrong foot' the opposition by doing the transfer of sovereignty a couple of days early." Bremer agreed to this bright idea but worried that it would "look as if we are scuttling out of here, Condi." There would have to be "several days of relative calm" beforehand. In the event, he settled for several hours. When Bremer landed in Jordan, he called his wife. "I'm safe and free," he told her. Which was more than he could say for Iraq.

What Bremer did not mention in his book is a document—Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 17—that he signed on June 27, 2004, just one day before he scuttled out of there, that continues to set the ground rules for the American occupation of Iraq. It is not a "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) like the ones we have with our NATO allies or Japan or other countries where U.S. forces might be based. Those have to be negotiated, and the talks are tough, because truly sovereign countries think sovereignty truly is important. They never like the idea that American soldiers who commit crimes on their territory are not subject to their laws.

But Order 17 was not negotiated with the Iraqis, it was promulgated by the Americans, and it's purely of the people, by the people and for the people that the United States brought into Iraq. Under its provisions, they are exempt from Iraqi laws, cannot be arrested, prosecuted, tried or taxed. Nor do they have to pay rent for the buildings and land they turn into bases. Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who served in Baghdad immediately after the invasion and subsequently negotiated military agreements with other countries before leaving the State Department in 2004, describes what Bremer pulled off as "a SOFA on steroids." It's all about what the Americans get to do, and what the Iraqis get to do for them.

Order 17 applies not only to soldiers but to the rest of that vast, motley array of foreigners that originally came in with Bremer and stayed, under different guises and in ever-growing numbers, after he left: consultants, contractors and the "security contractors," known in other places and times as mercenaries. Under Order 17, as long as they're working on U.S. government contracts and subcontracts they are immune to arrest and prosecution, taxes and duties imposed by Iraqi law. (I would invite readers to look at the text .) Implicitly and in fact, Order 17 has given these characters a license to kill.

Why talk about it now? Because today—and this is no mean accomplishment for the American occupation and for the Iraqi people—there actually is a sovereign government in Baghdad under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. And whatever its failings, it's going to be answerable to political interests inside the country, not just inside the Beltway.

At a time when Washington clatters with political cut and thrust about that catchphrase "cut and run," the Iraqis themselves are interested to know just what the Americans think they are doing in Iraq, how long they'll keep doing it and under whose laws. Of course, there's also the issue of several alleged massacres by American troops, and there are the less publicized but not uncommon killings of innocents by American private security personnel, if not in the line of duty, then in the line of government employment.

Maliki said earlier this month that it's a "regular occurrence" to see Iraqis die at the hands of Americans who "crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion." And it's no wonder he wanted to launch a separate police investigation into the alleged killings at the town of Haditha . But no Iraqi inquiry would have the power to subpoena, much less to put on trial or convict any American found guilty. (And execution? Well, that's for Americans to do to themselves and others, not for Iraqis to do to us.)

On Dec. 31 of this year, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1637 , which provides the broad legal mandate for American and other foreign coalition forces in Iraq, will expire. My friends in Baghdad tell me the United States has been quietly encouraging the Iraqi Parliament to call for the resolution's renewal. But the Parliament will soon go into recess, so it's hoped Maliki might just make that move by himself. If he does, and takes no other action, Order 17 will still be around. As a spokesman for the Multinational Force in Baghdad informed my NEWSWEEK colleague Sarah Childress, "CPA Order 17 remains in effect. The Iraqi Constitution provides that all existing laws remain in effect until they are amended or annulled." Indeed, it was written to "remain in force" for as long as the U.N. mandates are renewed and "shall not terminate until the departure of the final element of the [multinational forces] from Iraq," unless the Parliament in Baghdad explicitly repeals it.

In the middle of a war that both the Maliki government and the U.S. forces are trying to win, supposedly by working together, many in Baghdad and Washington would rather not get too explicit about the terms of the relationship. It's as if this marriage were a romance, and a prenup might spoil all that. But this isn't a marriage, and so far the U.S.-Iraqi relationship isn't even a real partnership. It still looks like, and is, an occupation by foreign powers, a quasi-colonial undertaking.

If there had been any doubt about that, just look at the uproar in Washington over Maliki's leaked plan for national reconciliation, which originally included a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and an amnesty for Iraqi insurgents, implicitly including those who'd attacked Americans . The text that was issued, in the end, dropped both those proposals . Where the United States is concerned, of course, amnesty is a one-way street: Americans get it (and in advance through Order 17), Iraqis don't.

In a war that's every bit as much a political as a military undertaking, this situation may be great for Halliburton employees and the hired guns of Blackwater, but it's not going to help us bring peace. What's needed, and now, is a new Status of Forces Agreement or similar treaty. Will it be difficult to conclude? Yes. But without it, the Iraqis will believe, and with reason, that American plans remain much as they were when Bremer issued his writ—and split. Unable to stay, unable to go, we'll try to leave the Iraqis behind to finish the war we started, if they can, but demand they follow our rules while they do it and work for our benefit in the process.

That just won't do. If the United States is ever going to get out of Iraq with any semblance of honor, it's going to have to have a relationship of equal respect with the people running the government there. It can no longer treat them as servants. It can no longer pretend it's running a "protectorate" for incompetents—especially since it was our own incompetence at the highest levels that got us into this mess.

There is a famous quote from the brilliant, troubled and troublesome British Orientalist T. E. Lawrence that one hears quoted often by Americans in Iraq. "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly," they tell each other knowingly—without knowing, perhaps, how grossly condescending they sound. But, like many another famous quote, this one has been edited down by the facile repetition of simple minds. What Lawrence actually said was, "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is."

That last line is the one to remember.