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Rebuilding Iraq


A sovereign Iraq

A Boston Globe Editorial, 04/10/2003

SYMBOLS RARELY mirror reality as closely as the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square reflected the collapse of his regime yesterday. After initial resistance, both fell ignominiously -- and rather easily.

There may be more fighting, especially north of Baghdad, and the fate of Saddam is still uncertain. But if, as seems likely, the jubilant welcome thousands of Iraqis gave to US troops yesterday is seen as the climax of the war, attention will rightly turn to the next challenges for coalition forces and the Iraqi people.

The rehabilitation of postwar Iraq will not be easy. Not only must war damage be repaired; the physical and psychic damage inflicted by 35 years of Saddam's brutality must also be dealt with. The foreign invaders tearing down the Baathist dictatorship have an obligation to help Iraqis revive their country. But if US and British troops stay too long and meddle too much in the politics of Iraq, they are sure to be reviled as neo-colonialist occupying powers.

President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who held discussions Monday and Tuesday outside Belfast, affirmed sage principles for the postwar period but were tantalizingly vague about some crucial issues.

What the two had to say about Iraqi self-determination and economic recovery was heartening. "We support the aspirations of all of Iraq's people for a united, representative government that upholds human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy," they said. "We reaffirm our commitment to protect Iraq's natural resources as the patrimony of the people of Iraq, which should be used only for their benefit."

These promises must be kept.

It will not be easy to create democratic institutions in a society disfigured by violent dictatorship. But the effort must be made. The outside world must not relapse into an old reflex of cynicism: the assumption, too long prevalent in Washington, Paris, Moscow, and other capitals, that the stability of strongman rule trumps democracy.

Iraqis live in an undemocratic neighborhood. The Saudi, Syrian, and Iranian regimes will hardly be eager to see democracy flourish next door in the cultural capital of the Arab world. Given a chance, they will cast their hooks into Iraqi politics as they once did in Lebanon. So the new Iraq will have to keep dangerous neighbors at bay but not threaten them. And a democratic Iraq will have to find ways of preventing authoritarian neighbors from succeeding in Iraqi politics.

The goal of enabling Iraqis to create a democratic future ought to serve as a magnetic force that points all important decisions about postwar Iraq in the same direction. This would mean that the foreign armies on Iraqi soil after the war's end should confine their activities to maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity, keeping law and order until a reconstituted Iraqi police force can do the job, hunting for weapons of mass destruction in cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, and preventing civilians from seeking revenge against Baathist officials and agents who tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The Bush administration is planning to have a retired general, Jay Garner, lead a team of civilians including notables such as former CIA director James Woolsey to take charge of existing Iraqi ministries and manage basic functions -- the provision of electricity, water, and sewage disposal and the revival of communications, hospitals, and postal services. These tasks must be done swiftly. But US management of Iraqi ministries must not become an excuse to mold police and intelligence services in thrall to Washington or to prejudge Iraqi political options by having the American managers winnow functionaries according to ideology.

Most important is that the duration of the Garner team in Baghdad ministries should be as short as possible. Some administration officials have broached an interlude of 90 days. Three months ought to be time enough to prepare the way for a transfer of administrative responsibilities to Iraqis.

What Bush and Blair said about possible UN roles in postwar Iraq had the ring of a tentative compromise between Blair's wish for a legitimizing UN involvement and Bush's wariness about the Security Council making decisions affecting Iraq's governance.

Syria is currently one of the 10 nonpermanent council members, and it would be absurd to allow the Baathist regime in Damascus to have a say in how Iraqis go about achieving the de-Baathification of their political life. There is also the risk that the French president, Jacques Chirac, will exploit France's status as a permanent council member to seek Iraqi contracts for French firms.

Nevertheless, there will have to be a substantial role for the UN in postwar Iraq. Bush and Blair were justified in saying: "The United Nations has a vital role to play in the reconstruction of Iraq." They are right to seek "Security Council resolutions that would affirm Iraq's territorial integrity, ensure rapid delivery of humanitarian relief, and endorse an appropriate postconflict administration for Iraq." The problem is that Chirac and other council members will want to protect their interests by having a hand in determining the postwar administration.

It will be best for Iraqis, Americans, and the United Nations if an interim Iraqi authority -- one that includes representation for all 18 of Iraq's provinces and all political tendencies -- can take part in deciding the roles of the UN and other outsiders in Iraq's reconstruction. Foreigners who have been implicated in long liaisons with Saddam should not decide now how free Iraqis will govern themselves. If Iraqis want political advice, they can ask for it. And if they need help in conducting trials of the Baathists for crimes against humanity, they can draw upon the experience of foreign jurists.

If this war is to increase global stability rather than weaken it, the United States must demonstrate that it fought only for its own security and for the welfare of the Iraqi people.

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