The future of Iraq began on Thursday, for better and, in the short term a certainty, for worse. A ceremony in Baghdad at a site that's been the U.S. political headquarters in Iraq for more than five years was the location of the beginning of a transition to Iraqi control, by which Iraq assumes control of its armed forces and the Green Zone, the fortified enclave of Baghdad up until now under American control.
Iraqi control of Iraq occurred when the United Nations Security Council resolution expired at midnight on New Year's Eve. At that moment, the United States lost its power to detain Iraqis, and — importantly — lost its control over the impact of Iraqi laws on American contractors, like the hired-gun cowboys of Blackwater, some of whom have been responsible for violence against Iraqi civilians.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a ceremony at the Republican Palace, declared the day a national holiday. "A year ago, anyone who thought this day would happen would have been seen as a dreamer. Now the dream has come true," Maliki said. "This is the day we have been waiting for ... Sovereignty has been restored."
Americans have been waiting for this moment, to say nothing of the Iraqi people. The cost to each of them has been far too high. This handover of most aspects of controlling Baghdad — some U.S. troops will remain for up to three years, to facilitate the transition — sends the signal to the American people that the endgame is in sight, however nasty the steps might be between now and then.
It tells the physically and psychically brutalized Iraqi people that their nation’s sovereignty is no longer an objective or a goal, but again an accomplished fact — a fragile constitutional democracy requiring care and feeding of a plurality of its citizens.
And the change that began Thursday tells the world at large that the tragic foreign-policy improvisations of the Bush administration are in their last days, even if their effects linger like a bad taste in the mouth.
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The handover is cause for cautious celebration. Underline cautious: the event was overshadowed by a plus ça change moment: a suicide bomber detonated Thursday in the northern city of Mosul killing three policemen, and wounding five civilians, Reuters reported.
But those convulsions, those lurches between order and chaos, are some of the small steps Iraq will require to make the shift to an indigenous participatory government, liberated from the relentless tyrannies of a dictator, the incidental tyrannies of an occupying army, and the tribal suspicions harbored over the centuries.
Ironically, in some ways, Thursday’s announcement only confirms what’s been known for some time: that for far too long al-Maliki has been effectively the mayor of Baghdad, a man with comparatively little control over events in his country, save that secured for him by the army occupying his country.
Now, with that occupying force quietly making exit strategies, the process of regaining control of his entire nation begins in earnest.
At times in the past, Maliki has appeared to be a woefully ineffectual leader; but he must get credit for presiding over this milestone for modern Iraq. Up to now he's navigated relationships with invaders and citizens with one hand — the hand of autonomy — tied behind his back. Now with more leverage at his disposal, and more at stake as his own election approaches, his diplomatic skills may never be more tested.
Image credit: Maliki: Agence France-Presse.