With the introduction of both a new Iraqi government and a new U.N. draft resolution, the Bush administration senses the beginning of the end to its controversial and costly intervention in Iraq. But the relief visible at the White House yesterday may be short-lived, for the United States still faces serious obstacles.
President Bush was almost giddily buoyant during a Rose Garden news conference about Iraq's interim government, heralding the 36 Iraqi appointees as "a team that possesses the talent, the commitment and the resolve to guide Iraq through the challenges that lie ahead." Not since the "Mission Accomplished" photograph aboard the USS Lincoln on May 1 last year, when Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, has the administration appeared as upbeat about the future.
"This is a very hopeful day for the Iraqi people and the American people. It's going to send a clear signal that terrorists can't win," Bush told reporters, adding that Iraq is now "one step closer to democracy."
Washington hopes the new U.N. draft resolution, circulated just hours after the government was announced, will provide a further boost, drawing international support for the handover of political power now just a month away. It addresses key demands from France, Russia and China -- three of the five Security Council countries with vetoes -- plus Germany by providing an approximate timetable and terms for a troop withdrawal.
The draft stipulates that the requested U.N. mandate for a U.S.-led multinational force will expire after Iraq completes its new constitution and elects a permanent government, which it is now scheduled to do by the end of 2005.
It also pledges that the multinational force will withdraw earlier if the Iraqi government requests it, and that the Iraqi government will have complete control over its own army and police.
The resolution further stipulates that all arrangements will be made only with the full consent of the Iraqi government and makes clear that as of June 30, Iraqis will have full sovereignty and full control of their financial and natural resources.
"People can now see that we're developing real momentum for the handover of sovereignty," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.
These developments, the most hopeful in months, come at a pivotal time for the administration. The chaos in Iraq, combined with the revelations about abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, has driven Bush's approval ratings to the lowest of his presidency.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week showed that 58 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of Iraq, a politically perilous figure.
Bush aides contended over the weekend that the president has bottomed out politically. They told White House allies in Washington that the new government would mark a turning point by showing progress and would strengthen Bush for his meetings with European leaders later this week by putting Iraq's postwar future on a multinational track.
Yet through June 30 and beyond, the United States will enter a much more complex phase on Iraq. For the past year, the U.S.-led coalition has technically had sole authority over Iraq. With the appointment of the interim government and a return to the United Nations, the United States begins to cede formal control over what happens next.
After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the messy selection of the interim government reflects the degree to which Washington had to turn to others -- the Iraqi Governing Council and the United Nations -- to meet its deadlines.
In addition, the new government has to win local support, despite strong U.S. and U.N. endorsements for including balance among ethnic and religious factions as well as between technocrats and politicians, and for including tribal leaders, women and many new faces. If it is rejected, the U.S.-led coalition has no fallback plan -- and the transition could be suddenly in jeopardy.
That is not beyond the realm of possibility, U.S. experts say. Because of the selection process and the strong U.S. ties of many in Iraq's interim government, "there is more of an appearance of legitimacy" than the government actually has, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's not going to convince the Iraqi people as a whole, or certainly our more violent enemies."
Bush acknowledged the threat of attacks. "There's still violent people who want to stop progress. Their strategy hasn't changed. They want to kill innocent lives," he told reporters.
Major U.S. concessions in the latest U.N. draft, which were the subject of intense negotiations in New York among Security Council envoys last night, also reflect the scramble to win badly needed support for an ongoing foreign military presence -- with the clock rapidly ticking.
"I've been speaking with a variety of world leaders, to encourage them to -- by telling them we're willing to work with them to achieve language we can live with but, more importantly, language that the Iraqi government can live with," Bush told reporters.
But U.N. officials say the draft is unlikely to win passage before June 6, the anniversary of D-Day and the original goal. "We don't want to ram it through in a huge hurry. We need to get it right and make sure that the status of the [military] mission and forces agreement respects sovereignty . . . so that those who say this is a shell game are wrong," said a senior U.N. official who requested anonymity because of ongoing negotiations.
In contrast to four previous U.N. resolutions, talks yesterday went well, U.S. officials said. "In months past, we've had knock-down, drag-out debates on substance. In contrast, we were today truly in the weeds about small, arcane changes," said a senior U.S. official at the United Nations present for the discussions.
Besides France, the biggest unknown is Spain, which co-sponsored previous U.N. resolutions advocating military intervention. But the Spanish government that deployed troops in Iraq was replaced earlier this year, and U.S. officials say it is unclear how Spain may use its Security Council vote.
After the talks, U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham told reporters that the delegations would "go away and reflect." Iraqi interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zubari is expected to arrive in New York today to brief the Security Council.
In words that may not expedite the big diplomatic push, Bush said yesterday, "You know how the United Nations is. Sometimes, it can move slowly, and sometimes it can move quickly."
Bush will try to generate further momentum behind his Iraq policy today at the Air Force Academy commencement address, when he delivers the second of a weekly series of Iraq speeches until the transition. He will detail his view of how Iraq fits into the broader war on terrorism and why the stakes are high. He plans to argue that the war is a clash of ideologies between the civilized world and al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, and will describe similarities and differences between this war and World War II, U.S. officials said.