It was a smart move to transfer sovereignty to Iraq today, two days ahead of schedule. If the Bush administration keeps doing things this smart over the next several months, the transition to self-rule might go more smoothly than anyone has had reason to suspect.
The change of schedule didn't come as a complete surprise. Reporters in Baghdad were informed over the weekend that the handover would be moved up from Wednesday to Tuesday. Once June 30 was no longer sacrosanct, it wasn't a big step to hold the ceremony sooner still.
Intelligence analysts expected new torrents of violence to erupt in the days leading up to the handover. With an Iraqi government put in place now, any future terrorist attacks can be reclassified from "anti-occupation" to "insurrectionist."
The distinction is not merely symbolic—or, to the extent it is, the symbolism might be sufficiently potent to alter popular attitudes and behavior. On one level, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi could order emergency measures—not on behalf of the occupiers but in the name of the new Iraqi national government. On another, more critical, level, the Iraqi people might view the insurgency in a different way—as a threat not to the occupiers but to themselves. To the extent that the insurgents are nationalists and not jihadists, the accelerated move to self-rule might even deter some from continuing to take up arms.
It is therefore essential that Allawi at least appear to be an independent leader. At a minimum, every official announcement, press conference, or other public appearance in Iraq must be made by an Iraqi. Any American involved in the subject at hand should stand far in the background, if not out of sight.
Sometime in the next week, Allawi should have a public dispute with the United States—and he should very clearly prevail. It doesn't much matter what the issue is; the whole spat could be staged. The important thing is that Allawi must not merely say, but demonstrate, that he and his team are in charge.
Key figures in Iraqi politics seem willing, at least for the moment, to give Allawi a chance. The chief Shiite spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, has endorsed Allawi and urged his own followers to be peaceful. The insurgents unwittingly helped sway Sunni sentiments by playing their hand way too hard. Several of the most influential Sunni clerics condemned last Thursday's attacks that killed over 100 people in five towns. Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Sammarae said in his Friday sermon in Baghdad, "We do not need anyone from outside the borders to stand with us and spill the blood of our sons in Iraq."
Allawi himself played on a similar theme in an op-ed piece published in Sunday's Washington Post. Discussing the issue of security, Allawi wrote that his government:
will make a clear distinction between the Iraqis who have acted against the occupation out of a sense of desperation and the foreign terrorist fundamentalists and criminals whose sole objective is to kill and maim innocent people and to see Iraq fail. Our objective will be to reach out to the former group in a national Reconciliation effort and invite them to join us in a fresh start to build our country's future together, while at the same time isolating and defeating the latter group.
This is an immensely important statement in that it recognizes the legitimacy of at least one element of the resistance—specifically, those who fought the occupation for entirely nationalist reasons. U.S. officials have spoken abstractly about this distinction, but they have never been able to act on it—for good reason: Whatever the various insurgents' motives, they've all been shooting at American soldiers and therefore must be shot back at. Allawi's recognition alone—he also said he will grant amnesty to nationalist resisters who did not commit crimes—could go some distance toward his main goal of, as he put it, "isolating the hard-core elements."