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Live from Baghdad: Handover Reaction

Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 28, 2004; 2:00 PM

The United States transferred political authority to an interim Iraqi government in a five-minute surprise ceremony on Monday morning that was conducted two days before the planned June 30 handover date because of security concerns. "Before us is a challenge and a burden and we ask God almighty to give us the patience and guide us to take this country whose people deserves all goodness," said President Ghazi Yawar after taking his oath. "May God protect Iraq and its citizens."

U.S. Transfers Political Authority in Iraq, (post.com, June 28)


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Washington Post foreign correspondent Scott Wilson was online Monday, June 28 at 2 p.m. ET, live from Baghdad to discuss the handover and reaction in Iraq.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Scott Wilson: Hi everyone. Very sorry I'm late. Well, the reaction of many Iraqis was much like many of us here in the bureau - surprise. It came two days early, as you all know, mostly to avoid possible attacks on June 30. But Iraqis also seemed to feel a sense that, at least in the short term, they were likely to see little change. As for the new government, there is a sense that the prime minister, Ayad Alawi, woudl like to move quickly to show who's in charge after 15 months occupation and may ipose some emergency laws to help contain the violence. But we''l see.

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Clemson, S.C.: A couple of points here. First, I saw in today's paper where an Iraqi was saying, this was not the kind of democracy we wanted. He was referring to the explosion of newspapers, which he said would criticize God if He came back. I would like to say "Welcome to our world." I think Iraqis need to know that that IS demoracy.

Second, about the initial explosion of looting last year, I have a feeling that if we had came and done what would have been necessary, we would have been severely criticized for being too harsh.

Scott Wilson: Interesting point, and I think acorrect one. There is very little understanding of what democracy entails - compromise, criticism, etc - that decades of dictatorship have left untaught, obviously. And the balance US forces tried to strike in the post-invasion period, which I was here for, are the same difficult ones they are trying to strike today. I wrote a little about that for tomorrow's paper after spending some time with soldiers preparing for the transfer in Baqubah.

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Richmond, Va.: If I read The Post I am told that there is little to no hope for peace, stability and democracy in Iraq. They all want us out. We are the problem. I guess I will have to wait until mid-November to see positive articles on the schools, the economy, the vastly improved prospects for women and girls in Iraq, the fact that the terrorists no longer can use Iraq to train as they did before?

Scott Wilson: This is a common criticism of the press in general - that the good things never get reported. This isn't quite fair. But I do think that grinding securtiy concerns, felt acutely by Iraqis, tend to make the new schools less important. You say "we are part of the problem." That's the way Iraqis feel, and what the insurgents take advantage of. We're a scapegoat for a lot of problems here, fairly in some cases, not fairly in others.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: How does this differ from our leaving Vietnam supposedly in the hands of the South Vietnamese only to have it fall in two hours? Isn't even the way the ceremony was held evidence of failure?

Scott Wilson: A few of you have touched on what you see as a Saigon-like quality to today's handover ceremony. I don't think it is proof positive of failure, but it certainly highlights how troubled the country is. The difference is that 138,000 U.S. troops will remain in the country, the idea being to give Iraqis a chance to elect a government that might be accepted. Thatis, we haven't "left" yet.

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Washington, D.C.: Tony Blankley is all over the place touting the news that Alawi has an astronomical approval rating among Iraqis. That is good news for Iraq, but it raises a troubling question -- if the Iraqis were ready to accept a U.S.-installed CIA man as their new leader all along, why have we been running the country for the past year? Couldn't this transition have happened last June? It isn't like we've gotten the country rebuilt, a constitution drafted, a viable police force trained, etc?

Scott Wilson: I think all good points here. Alawi's popularity is a good sign, though a little hard to know how Iraqis are judging him. People have made the point that if it was going to be an Iraqi exile favored by the United States leading the country anyway, why not have done it months ago. Hindsight's 20-20 on this, I guess.

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Falls Church, Va.: Scott, were you surprised that the handover happened early or was there some kind of advance inside information that this would happen?

Scott Wilson: I was surprised, and didn't find out myslef until a few hours after it had happened. I had bene traveling back from Baqubah, about 35 miles to the northeast, to be here for the handover. We had heard it might happen Tuesday, a day earlier than scheduled, so this took us by surprise. Reporters were informed a half hour before the event, and told only that it was a Bremer background briefing - not a great thrill. Fortunately one of my colleagues went.

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Washington, D.C.: Come on, handover? Look at the facts:
1. The majority of active/opposed domestic counterinsurgency within Iraq will still be undertaken by U.S. forces (OK, technically "Coalition," but in terms of Troop Commands, it's over 98 percent U.S.).
2. The CPA management will still remain in-country, doing jobs little different than from before the "handover."
3. The new government is not creditworthy, and will be operating effectively at the 100 percent expense of the U.S. -- for the foreseeable future.
4. The new "handover" government is not recognized by most countries which recognize the U.S. government. It isn't even going to be recognized by many Islamic governments.
5. The process of establishing the overwhelming majority of state-controlled forces (national police, army, border police, and Baghdadi metro police are the four key forces) is numerically less than 20 percent complete.
There is no "handover." This is entirely a fraud designed to lull lazy American voters into believing that Bush is somehow doing everything he can to exit, when in fact this is all probably a charade.

Scott Wilson: Much of it is symbolic, but I'd suggest the target audience is less US voters than Iraqis themselves. If they feel they are governing themselves, even in the very liited way you describe, they may be more likely to protest insurgent attacks within the country. That's the theory anyway...

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New York, N.Y.: Whats the feeling on the street about the handover? How much of a "honeymoon" period do you think the new government has to prove itself?

Scott Wilson: The interim government was named last month, so people havegottne used to the idea. Perhaps that;s why there was very little visible reaction on the streets today - no celebratory gunfire, for example, like the wall of steel that shot up into the air when Iraq beat Saudi Arabia in soccer to qualify for the Olympics last month. Surprised by the timing, but maybe not much more than that.

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Washington, D.C.: How were the regular people in Iraq informed that the "power transfer" had taken place?

Scott Wilson: Good question. Probably first by Arabic satellite channels - Jazeera and Arabiya - then word of mouth. The U.S.-created Iraqiya channel showed movies throughout much of the morning - not sure why if this was something they wanted to highlight.

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Arlington, Va.: I have to wonder if this ceremony was moved because of some knowledge of a major attack -- or multiple attacks -- timed to the original June 30th date. Would certainly explain Bremer's high-tailing it out of the country.

Scott Wilson: This was certainly the suggestion. If so, I hope that it means the attacks won't go ahead anyway, just in other areas.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: So Iraq is free and independent. When do they feed, clothe, house, and secure themselves? I'm 52 and a political atheist. In my lifetime??

Thanks much.

Scott Wilson: Umm, hard to say. I'd like to think so, and my guess is yes.

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New York, N.Y.: What limits have been placed on the new Iraq government's sovereignty?

Scott Wilson: The interim govt can't make international treaties, will have spending of its oil revenues monitored, can overturn CPA edicts with a majority of the three-meber council of presidents, etc. Essentially it can't make long-term policy. That's why getting to the elections in six months is so important.

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Washington, D.C. : Scott,
Greetings from an old friend from your Naval Academy beat days. Remember when the military's biggest problems were cheating scandals and raucus midshipmen?

My question is this: in your professional opinion, what will Iraq look like in a year? Five? Are you an optimist or a pessimist on this issue?

Scott Wilson: Hi there - I sure do. Those were the days. But I've beenamazed after spending much of the past threeweeks with oung soldiers how skillful, commited, stoic, and inspiring they are. Really, really something. I'm an optimist somedays and pessimist others - how's that for wishy washy. In a year, it won't look much different and will have suffered a lot of bloodshed. In five years, it will look better, if different - maybe loosely know together in automomous regions run by ethnic/sectarian majorities? But better. I hope.

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Texas: You say you spent some time with soldiers. How would you say most of them are feeling about their mission? Sometimes one hears comments (both in the media and from friends-of-friends) that the situation isn't as bad as the media makes it out to be, and that a lot of good is being done. Other times one hears comments like "Deciding whether this whole thing is worth it is above my pay grade," which I sort of take to mean "If I spent much time thinking about that, I don't think I would like my conclusions, and that wouldn't be healthy for my state of mind."

Which view do you encounter more often? If you could take a poll of military people in Iraq (privates through generals), what do you suppose it might show?

Scott Wilson: I'll take this qeustion because I my time with these guys - soldiers from the 1st Armored Division who fought in the Shiite south for two solid months after their tour was to suppose to end, and more recently the 1st Infantry Division now in a tough fight in Baqubah. The seasoned 1st AD soldiers were proud of their work but were unsure of the country as they leave it - that is, whether it will calm or rise up. The 1st Infantry guys the same, though they arrived at a moment when this was supposed to be getting better and instead they've been fighting hard, losing friends. The battlefield is terrifying - allwys, apartmnt buildings, civilians, etc. And the risks, as they appear to my novice eye, that these guys take are enormous in fighting thsi kind of war. But I'd say they are professionals, who do their job more than they think about it at the moment. That will come later, in clamer times.

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Montpelier, Vt.: Why shouldn't the Iraqi people as a whole begin demanding the wholesale release of both Shia and Sunni prisoners being held by the United States since most have not been formally charged with crimes?

How can the government claim any sense of legitimate sovereignty and still have literally thousands jailed out of their reach... held without charge?

Could this be the rallying cry that gives the insurgency even more legitimacy?

Scott Wilson: Many are demanding a wholesale release, and yes, it most likely benefits the insurgency. Abu Ghraib in general was a boon to opponents of the occupation.

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Arlington, Va.: Was the razing of Abu Ghraib, promised by President Bush in his first "press conference" about the prisoner abuse, mentioned in the handover documents? Would that still be the jurisdiction of the United States?

Scott Wilson: The tarnsfer papers, to my knowledge, do not specifically mention Abu Ghraib. But Alawi has aksed the Americans to stay there, and the decision to raze it will be up to the Iraqis, as President Bush said. At this point, they have said they do not intend to.

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Fairfax, Va.: Scott,

Can you say a few words about the relationship between the CPA and the Embassy? Will staff transfer over? Where in Baghdad will the embassy be located? In an isolated area similar to the Green Zone? What will happen to the Green Zone? This seems relevant because one of the major problems of the CPA has been its geographical and ideational distance to Iraqis and the problems they encounter daily.

Thanks for anwering questions today.

Scott Wilson: My understanding is that about 200 of the CPA's 2000 staffers will stay on with the embassy, which will remain insdie the Green Zone istelf. It will be interesting over the next few weeks to see the changes, if any, in the physical aspects of the city after the occupation. That is, will the blast walls comes down, watch towers, traffic circles checkpoints, layers and layers of razor wire in front of the conference center. That would reduce isolation, but increase risk, and there are lots of these still.

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Washington, D.C.: Why did we fight all spring against insurgents who sought to force an early handover, and then give them the victory with only two days left to go?

Now the insurgents in the field will claim a victory, and that will sustain their efforts to harm our soldiers. I'm truly fearful for the safety of our troops under the current military leadership. It was only a five-minute ceremony, but holding it on any day other than June 30 gives a strong propaganda victory to the bad guys.

Who at the CIA was participating in the decision to go with an early handover?

Scott Wilson: It's a good question, and I'm wondering if we will hear this kind of declaration of victory, in a way, from insurgents or even leaders hostile to the occupation, like Moqtada Sadr, etc. in the coming days.

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Burlington, Vt.: I envision two distinct Iraqs to be determined by the outcome of the U.S. presidential race. The Bush Iraq will differ very little from what it is today as this administration has no real intention of relinquishing authority (there's a lot of money to be made there). The Kerry Iraq will be a country struggling to remake itself within a framework of Middle Eastern society and customs. Though the Kerry Iraq is born of hope and diplomacy with no discernable outcome, the Bush Iraq is currently alive and well. What future would you opt for?

Scott Wilson: I leave the domestic politics to you...

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Scott Wilson: Thanks for all the questions everyone. I've got to get to work. Best regards to all.

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