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June 30 handoff losing impact

BAGHDAD -- In the chaos and killing over the past two weeks in Iraq, much has changed, but the date of June 30 remains.

"Iraqi sovereignty will arrive on June 30th," President Bush pledged Saturday.

Still, there is a growing feeling among many in Washington and Baghdad that the date once touted as momentous will be merely symbolic, an incremental marker in a far longer journey toward self-governance.

On June 30, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has ruled Iraq for nearly a year, will close for business. It is expected to open its doors the next day as the largest US Embassy in the world, with 3,000 employees.

Yet with fewer than 80 days to go, it is still unclear who will assume sovereignty. The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council will cease to exist June 30, but it has yet to agree on what kind of interim government will rule and how it will be chosen. It is widely expected that its replacement will comprise many of the same members, including returned exiles who have little public support.

The Iraqi security forces, built up with much fanfare over the past year, will still be under the control of US generals, who are expected to retain more than 100,000 troops in the country for an undetermined period.

"It's an artificial handover," said a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Trade who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating the Bush administration. "People really need to think about what sovereignty really means when you have more than 100,000 troops on the ground."

He said coalition advisers to the trade ministry do not appear to be giving up their clout: They have written and circulated drafts of the ministry budget, for 2005.

For much of the past year, US officials touted June 30 as their last day in power, after which Iraqis will be in charge of everything from health to security. Yet the revolt by a Shi'ite militia during the past week raised fears that the country could disintegrate, and American officials now take pains to emphasize that not much will change.

"The coalition's commitment to Iraq will continue," Bush said Saturday in a radio address. "We will establish a new American Embassy to protect our nation's interests. We will continue helping the Iraqi people reconstruct their economy, undermined by decades of dictatorship and corruption. And our coalition forces will remain committed to the security of Iraq."

It is becoming increasingly clear that in many critical areas, Americans will still largely retain control after June 30.

"I think this is going to be a more cosmetic handover than substantive handover, if it happens," said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I think everyone should accept that the sovereignty will be handed over, but the Iraqis will remain dependent on the Americans for virtually everything for the foreseeable future."

Even after June 30, the Iraqi military will answer to an American commander, at least until an elected government is formed, according to Iraq's interim constitution and a CPA directive issued last month that established a new Iraqi Defense Ministry.

Although US officials promised to get a written agreement with the Iraqi Governing Council before June 30 authorizing US troops to stay in the country, the agreement was scrapped amid increasing Iraqi criticism that the unelected governing council did not represent them.

Now senior US officials justify staying in Iraq after June 30 with a legalistic interpretation of Security Council Resolution 1511. That measure conferred the mandate for a multinational force to occupy the country until the political process is complete, a stage that US officials say will come only with an elected government. That is expected to be formed no earlier than December.

Asked about plans for US troops in Iraq, General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, told reporters yesterday he "wouldn't want to make any predictions about how long anybody or anything is going to stick around in Iraq."

Like security, Iraq's economy will also largely remain in US hands. The $18.4 billion in US assistance will still be managed by Americans, who have set up the network of contractors to rebuild the country's ruined infrastructure.

The size of the embassy -- about 1,000 Americans and 2,000 Iraqis, with consulates spread in at least four cities -- leads some to believe the United States will still retain control and the new, as-yet-unnamed ambassador will be the equivalent to the current top US administrator, L. Paul Bremer III.

As the US aims to quell resistance in Fallujah and in southern cities by holding out to Iraqis the carrot of sovereignty, many Iraqis are doubtful. "We don't trust the Americans," said Bakr Abbas, a lawyer, when asked about the June 30 transition. "The government that will come will be an agent for them."

At Friday prayers last week, Harth al-Dhari, leader of the influential Council of Muslim Scholars, spelled out his definition of sovereignty: "The departure of troops, and minimizing the number of its embassy to a normal embassy, like in any other country -- that is, if Iraqis accept to have an embassy."

US officials argue that June 30 will be meaningful and point out that Iraqis will take charge of the country's 25 ministries. For the last year, the leaders of those ministries have been subordinate to the provisional authority's "senior advisers" who ultimately control budgets and policy.

After June 30, ministries will theoretically become free from US control; their budgets will be set by the Iraqi interim government. The people now acting as provisional authority advisers may stay on, US officials say, but only as consultants to the Iraqi ministers.

Yet even here it is unclear how real their independence will be. Officials in the ministries say they are unsure whether ministers who depend on US-controlled funds for many of their key projects will refuse to work with a US adviser or will reject an adviser's advice.

"My gut feeling is that I really don't think so," said the trade ministry official. "The US has spent $120 billion on this exercise, they're not about to turn it over to a bunch of former Ba'athists and some [expatriates]."

Barnard reported from Baghdad, and Stockman reported from Washington. Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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