A Report From Iraq 2.0
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page A15
BAGHDAD -- At least in the small enclave of the Green Zone, there's now a better balance: At one end is an Iraqi president who talks fervently about how to put his country back together, and at the other end is a U.S. ambassador who talks diplomatically about leaving Iraq to the Iraqis.
Outside the walls, Iraq is still fragmented and violent -- far too chaotic and insecure to operate as a functioning state. The U.S. military is still the only force that can combat lawlessness and terrorism, and its presence still bitterly offends Iraqi pride. But for all that, this does feel like a slightly different country since the occupation officially ended June 28 with the departure of the proconsul in desert boots and rep tie, L. Paul Bremer.
For a snapshot of Iraq 2.0, listen to the men at the two ends of the Green Zone, President Ghazi Yawar and Ambassador John D. Negroponte. I interviewed both yesterday and came away feeling that, while it's far too early to say whether the new Iraq will work, in rhetorical terms, at least, the nation has turned a page.
Yawar may be the biggest surprise in the new interim government: As a sheik from the influential Shamar tribe, he represents the most basic building blocks of Iraqi society. And he has decided to dress the part, wearing the traditional costume of flowing white robe and a gold-edged black cape.
But Yawar speaks in a distinctly modern voice. Though his own tribe is a potent force, with about 3 million Iraqi members split about evenly between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, he argues that these ancient tribes must be harnessed to make Iraq a truly modern state. "Our tribe is Iraq," Yawar says. "What makes the U.S. a superpower is that all the ethnicities melt together."
Rebuilding Iraq will remain a fantasy unless the new government can restore stability. Yawar says he's glad he has a tough ex-Baathist, Ayad Allawi, as prime minister. And he says that by the end of the week, the government will announce a general amnesty for those who committed crimes during the U.S. occupation. The only ones automatically excluded will be rapists, hostage-takers or those who have been identified by witnesses as having killed people.
"Blood draws more blood . . . and we have to stop it," he says. Though Americans may be upset about leniency toward those who killed U.S. soldiers, he argues that "opening a new page" is the only route to stability. "We don't want to be a Saigon government that vanishes with the last helicopter," he says.
Down the road, Negroponte still occupies the same office Bremer had in the monolithic Republican Palace. But he insists he's not Bremer's successor -- "neither in form nor in substance." He wants to run the vast U.S. mission here like an embassy, rather than an occupation. And though Negroponte is hardly the deferential sort, he's trying to set an example by calling on officials of the Iraqi interim government. Yesterday he was scheduled to see the minister of justice, the chief justice, the minister of transportation, the national security adviser and President Yawar.
"It's their country to run," explains Negroponte in one of his first interviews since he took his post two weeks ago. "The CPA ended June 28. We became an embassy. We're here to support them in their efforts to stabilize their country."
That accommodating talk is partly make-believe. The reality is that U.S. troops still control the country, and that Negroponte, not Yawar, has the big office at the palace. But it's the right sort of rhetoric. And even on tough issues such as amnesty, Negroponte seems willing to accede. He speaks of Iraqi attitudes toward U.S. occupation as "the black, the gray and the white" and concludes: "I could see where an amnesty might be useful in making an appeal to people in the gray area."
Both Yawar and Negroponte agree that a key measure of progress is whether Iraq can hold to the timetable for democracy -- which calls for a broad national conference by the end of this month and elections no later than Jan. 31. Yawar even expresses the sort of idealism I hadn't heard about Iraq for more than a year. "We are destined to be leaders for the process of promoting stability and democracy in the Middle East," he asserts.
None of this fine talk will mean anything unless Iraqis and Americans can work together to contain the insurgency and stabilize the country. Outside the shelter of the Green Zone, that still looks like an all-but-impossible task. But at least in Iraq 2.0, Iraqis and Americans seem to be reading from the right script.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company