President Bush begins a series of speeches Monday to reassure the American people that his administration has a plan for transferring power in Iraq on June 30 and that Iraqis, with US help, are up to the task of running their own country.
Seeking to enlist a cautious international community in the Iraq reconstruction effort, Mr. Bush will use the speeches and subsequent gatherings with world leaders in June to emphasize that as of July 1, Iraq will once again be a sovereign nation.
But the subtext of the president's remarks, as he indicated in a trial run with GOP members of Congress last week, is that conditions are likely to get worse with the transfer of authority before they get better. Bush and top military leaders are warning of even more difficult days to come, with what is looking to be a long and complex transition to Iraqi rule, and with prospects for violence increasing as insurgents seek to prove an interim government's reliance on foreign soldiers.
Those complications come against the backdrop of a tarnished US presence, with the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal growing to new dimensions and new controversies arising. One example: Last week's bombing by US planes of what the military maintains was a way station for foreign fighters, but which Iraqis claim was a wedding party. At the same time, however, the elements of a stabler Iraq are emerging - from locally-administered public services and embryonic security forces to improved schools and women's groups.
As a result of these crosswinds, the June 30 transfer of power is seen increasingly as the beginning of a test rather than the marking of an accomplishment. While virtually no one sees the results as a foregone conclusion, many, including some sanguine Iraqis, believe that if the transition can be passed - perhaps by September, when schools reopen, summer's heat subsides, and life returns to set patterns - the country will then be able to consider itself in a new era. But both Iraq and the US face numerous hurdles before then, including:
• Survival of an interim government. Not only will insurgents seek to undermine it, but Iraqi political leaders and power groups left out of the government may also seek to bring it down. This is one reason the US soured on its former favorite Iraqi son, Ahmad Chalabi, whose home and offices were raided by security forces last week. Mr. Chalabi was seen as working against US plans for an interim government.
• Status of US and other foreign forces on the ground. Questions of who commands whom, and how much responsibility Iraqi forces will take for their security, remain unanswered. The US is considering an "opt out" provision for Iraqi forces allowing them to refuse to take part in US-led operations they object to. At the same time, US authorities say they may require more than the 135,000 US soldiers already in Iraq - in part because, as US officials report, other countries are turning down requests for more troops.
• Credible transition of the US presence from occupation to what US officials call a "helpful and supportive US mission." "How are Iraqis viewing the US presence in their country - are we making any progress in bringing down the 80 percent opposition that polls show? That's one of the factors I'll be watching closely," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. "If the numbers don't start to drop, we're really in trouble, because the anti-Americanism can lead to outright rebellion...."
Officials are focusing on the factors that could make or break the post-transition period. "If they can get past August, I think Iraq can start to pull out of these troubles and make some real progress, but that's still a big if," says a well-connected Iraqi who requested anonymity. Just back from the region and from talks with Iraqi leaders, he says the jockeying for power in the interim government is intense. "The reason is that no one believes elections are going to take place in six months as planned, so they have decided the time to play for power is now," he says.
United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is in Iraq toiling to name the leaders of the interim government by the end of May. His original idea was to name a caretaker government of technocrats that would have little power other than administering services and preparing the country for January elections. But the plan is running into interference from Iraqi leaders and groups that fear being left out.
Such power plays are already taking place - for example, in the continuing standoff between the US and Moqtada al-Sadr, the young firebrand Shiite cleric. His loyalists in Karbala apparently retreated from the city over the weekend, ceding control to the Americans, though it wasn't clear whether they planned to regroup somewhere else.
US officials working on the formal transition after June 30 say one of their main goals is that the Iraqis see the American presence as fundamentally different from what it has been. "We are concerned to show that this is going to be a different relationship, a host-country/guest-country relationship," says Frank Ricciardone, the State Department's coordinator for the Iraq transition. "We will no longer be the authority, but we will provide expertise" and help provide "the security Iraqis want."