For the past month almost everyone associated with the US-led occupation of Iraq has been focused on the June 30 handover. Town-hall meetings are held across Iraq explaining the interim government's powers and Coalition Provisional Authority staffers scuttle about the fortified Green Zone, preparing to hand over their jobs to State Department officials, planning vacations, and looking for new jobs.
But for most Iraqis the changing of the political guard comes down to one question: Will greater sovereignty mean more security? "This could be a big improvement if we really do get sovereignty and the power on our own to deal with the terrorists,'' says Sheikh Mohammed Bakar al-Suhel, chairman of the Baghdad City Council. "But we're going to have to see."
The preturnover signs are not encouraging. Thursday, there was more evidence that insurgents have regrouped and are intensifying their attacks. At least 66 Iraqis and three US soldiers were killed in attacks in six Iraqi cities, in an arc of violence stretching from Baghdad in the center of the country to the northern city of Mosul, 300 miles away.
A group led by Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has links to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on an Islamist Website. The violence primarily targeted Iraqis who the US hope will take a broader and more vigorous security role after the handover.
In the increasingly unstable northern city of Mosul, coordinated car bombs hit two Iraqi police stations, a police academy and a local hospital, killing at least 44; car bombs also hit police stations in the Sunni triangle town of Ramadi; in Baquba, government buildings were attacked and two US soldiers were killed in firefights with insurgents; and in Baghdad, a bomb at a checkpoint killed three Iraqi soldiers and one US soldier.
Thursday, the CPA relinquished control of the last 11 of 25 ministries, which now oversee more than 1 million government workers.
Iraqis, both officials and average citizens, say the most important dividend of any handover would be greater security, both from the insurgency but also from a crime wave that began soon after Baghdad fell last year. Iraqi police, facing insurgents and well-organized and armed criminal gangs, have been reluctant to do much more than direct traffic until now.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a former exile with close ties to both the CIA and former Baath generals, has promised a tough line against crime and the insurgency, mooting a declaration of martial law after he takes power. "Our No. 1 priority is security,'' says Imad al-Shibib, an Iraqi military officer who fled into exile in 1990 and now heads the political bureau of Mr. Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord. "We have people who know how to handle this."
For now, US forces will run most anti-insurgent operations. "I don't think that July 1st is a particularly significant date [for] coalition military operations,'' said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a coalition military spokesman. Military operations are not going to change dramatically "the way it is dramatically changing politically on the first day of July.... I think all of us understand that it will be some time before those Iraqi security forces can take on the burden and the responsibility."
Evidence of that has been the failure of a US experiment in the Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah, where an Iraqi brigade was put in charge after an April offensive against insurgents there left hundreds of residents dead and severely undercut Iraqi tolerance for the occupation.
US soldiers say the so-called Fallujah Brigade has done little to root out insurgents there, particularly the foreign fighters close to Zarqawi that the US alleges have been using the town as a base for attacks across the country. The Korean translator Kim Sun-Il was kidnapped and later beheaded near Fallujah by men who claimed to be with Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad Group. Reuters reported Thursday that men in the Baquba attack wore headbands identifying them as members of the Tawhid and Jihad battalion.
The power of Allawi to act as a strong leader remains to be seen, with the structure of the Iraqi government designed to tie his hands when it comes to passing legislation and other initiatives. The US and the United Nations were worried that an appointed Iraqi prime minister with wide powers could pose a threat to fair and democratic elections.
"After 30 years of living under Saddam's tyranny, it is perfectly understandable that the Iraqi people would seek to limit the power of a government that is not yet fully accountable to the Iraqi electorate,'' Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
But in practice, that will mean Allawi will need to build a consensus among Iraq's fractious and divided political groups to get things done. Major initiatives will need not only the approval of a 31-member council of ministers drawn up to reflect Iraqi's religious, sectarian, and political divides, but will also require the unanimous approval of the three-member presidency.
A two-thirds majority of a 100-member advisory council that will be set up in July could also veto any legislation. This group will also be widely representative; the 20 members of the now defunct Iraqi Governing Council have been guaranteed seats on the new body.
The interim government will still be guided by Ambassador Paul Bremer's blueprint. A senior coalition officials says that Mr. Bremer's executive orders will stand unless expressly repealed. As a result, the CPA is pushing to finish legislation for Bremer's signature before the 30th, including an update of CPA Order 17, which gives coalition forces broad powers inside Iraq and immunity from civilian prosecution - and will also serve as the major limit on Iraq's sovereignty.
In practice, Allawi will have to govern with the consent of the US, since it will remain the major financier of reconstruction and will have the most effective security apparatus inside the country. "In theory, there are things that Allawi could try to do, but in practice, he knows he needs the US,'' says a CPA official. "I don't anticipate many conflicts."
Most Iraqis say they're less concerned with the legal grounds of the handover and are much more interested in whether it will work. Their attitude towards the interim government now is akin to their early view of the CPA - wary but willing to give it a chance to make their lives better.
As the months dragged on with rising violence, and few tangible signs of improving quality of life, acceptance of the CPA was transformed into outright rejection. A CPA poll in May found that just 11 percent of Iraqis outside Kurdistan had confidence in the CPA, and 10 percent had confidence in US-led forces. That was down from 32 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in January.
US officials say part of the problem until now has been the reluctance of Iraqi forces to act at the behest of a foreign power. They expect an Iraq led by Allawi will be one in which police and new Army units will be more willing to take on insurgents and criminals.
"It is clear that the members of the security forces, most of whom are Iraqi patriots, need an Iraqi rallying point,'' Mr. Wolfowitz said Tuesday. "They need to understand they report to an Iraqi chain of command, and at the top of that chain of command is a lawfully constituted Iraqi government."
But many Iraqis are skeptical that there will be much change. A statement on an Islamist website attributed to Zarqawi dismissed the incoming government as "those that stand with the Americans," and urged Iraqis to rise up against the interim government. While that isn't likely, the reason most police give for not patrolling more aggressively - fear of attack - shows no indication of changing yet.