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Thursday, June 24

Power transfer in Iraq geared to elections

By John Yaukey | GNS

Updated: June 28

WASHINGTON - Most Americans and Iraqis want the same thing: U.S. troops to stabilize Iraq quickly and get out.

And both sides are looking to today's transfer of power from U.S. occupation authorities to Iraqis for signs of when that might happen.

Many a pundit has discounted the handoff as mere symbolism. But it does at least point the way for an eventual U.S. exit - even if it fails to guarantee a successful one.

A sovereign Iraqi government, albeit foreign-appointed and with limited powers, lays the groundwork for Iraq's first elections to be held early next year.

Experts stress that elections will go a long way in giving Iraqis tangible ownership of their country and future, now still bound up in a widely despised occupation that many Iraqis believe is part of a U.S. plan to run their country and plunder their oil.

``You can tolerate a certain amount of turmoil if you have the electoral process going,'' said former Republican White House aide William Kristol, a sharp critic of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq's rebuilding. ``It's the elections that are important now. The image of Iraqis lined up to vote cannot be underestimated in its effect.''

Getting there will require running what is already shaping up to be a gantlet of violence and political turmoil. And Baghdad's fledgling government will have to distance itself from American diplomats and troops if it hopes to gain any legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis.

The coming six months may well be the trickiest yet in Iraq as critical electoral deadlines approach and newly trained Iraqis take over responsibilities such as security that Americans were often incapable of meeting.

A series of coordinated attacks by insurgents Thursday killed at least 89 people and injured almost 300.

``This is a critical period - most of Iraq is still not stable,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington. ``If failure in Iraq is not an option, it is unfortunately a possibility.''

The plan

U.S. administrator Paul Bremer has flown out of Baghdad, and Iraq's interim leaders are in charge of just about all aspects of governance except security, where they have significant authority.

The new government's mission is simple, yet daunting: secure Iraq, provide basic services and prepare for the elections - nothing else.

It cannot pass any laws as Iraq has no constitution yet to regulate the process.

The most important component in the plan entails establishing the security that continues to elude the nation.

Without significant improvement in security, free and fair elections will be impossible because Iraqis will fear being killed at the polls and thug elements will be sure to try to hijack the democratic process.

With the power handoff, the more than 200,000 Iraqis trained for military and security duty move from an apprentice force to the frontline duty, at first in joint patrols with U.S. forces.

In preparation, American commanders made training Iraqi forces their lead priority.

And for good reason.

In April, when fighting broke out in Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala, some Iraqi troops abandoned their posts or joined the insurgents, raising serious doubts about the feasibility of transferring security operations.

``It's the Iraqis who have to win now,'' said retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, author of ``Beyond Baghdad'' and "Beyond Terror.'' ``Unfortunately, I don't see the will to do it.''

Ideally, the plan is to get Iraqis fully capable of securing their country by the end of 2005.

By then, Iraq will be holding its second round of elections, this time under a new constitution. The United Nations mandate sanctioning the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be approaching its expiration at the end of the year.

By 2006, it will be difficult to keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq without a request from the new leadership, already under pressure to distance itself from Americans. A recent survey of Iraqis by U.S. civil authorities in Baghdad found that most Iraqis would feel more secure if U.S. troops left.