Last week was filled with false “hand-overs.” The hand-over of Saddam Hussein and the hand-over of Iraqi sovereignty were both fake. In both cases “virtual” political or legal authority was declared in the hands of Iraq’s interim government, while actual control on the ground or in the prison remains with the U.S. Sovereignty is absolute; a nation is either sovereign or it is not; being “partially sovereign” is like being “partially pregnant.” Iraq remains occupied; it is not sovereign.

When U.S. pro-consul Paul Bremer left Baghdad with what one of his own assistants called “his tail between his legs,” he left behind a country still occupied, and governed by an imposed interim authority still completely reliant economically, militarily and politically on U.S. backing. The shift from Bremer’s “Coalition Provisional Authority” to the new U.S. “embassy” led by Ambassador John Negroponte reflects a shift from Pentagon authority to what appears to be a growing State Department – CIA collaboration as lead agencies in Iraq. It does not reflect a shift from U.S. to Iraqi control.

The anticipated June 30th date for the hand-over was moved up partly to avert likely embarrassing attacks by anti-occupation forces on the date of what was supposed to be a celebration, and partly to take advantage of the NATO summit in Istanbul. There, Bush used the opportunity of announcing the furtive, secret “transfer of sovereignty” in hopes of winning allies’ support for his war. It was not sufficient; while NATO agreed to an undefined commitment to train Iraqi police and soldiers, there were no new troop commitments or endorsements of the war.

The secrecy and stealth of the hand-over is one more indication of the failure of Bush administration policies. The war has not brought Iraq sovereignty, freedom or independence. Whatever they may try to sell to American voters, the invasion and occupation of Iraq is nothing for this administration to be proud of.

Bremer himself, referring to the multitude of new laws he imposed on Iraq in the last weeks before the so-called “transfer of sovereignty” designed to insure future Iraqi compliance with U.S.-dictated laws, institutions, and economic interests (oil, the WTO, and more), noted that, “you set up these things…and it’s harder to reverse course.”

What did Bremer’s departure and the June 28 “transfer of sovereignty” leave behind?

  • 140,000 U.S. troops, 20,000 ‘coalition’ troops, and 20,000 private military contractors still occupying the country;
  • 97 new laws and regulations, which Bremer himself identified as “binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people;”
  • An appointed electoral commission with authority to disqualify parties or candidates, and whose rules places tight restrictions on fundraising and political participation by any party connected to a militia or armed wing, while imposing no restrictions on money pouring in to Iraqi parties from U.S., Saudi, Iranian or any other foreign sources;
  • U.S.-appointed national security and intelligence chiefs for Iraq, each promised a 5-year term;
  • U.S. minders, known as “inspector-generals” appointed for five-year terms in every Iraqi ministry, with oversight power – and although Iraqi interim ministers nominally have the authority to ignore their advice or even fire them, the utter dependence of the interim government on U.S. political and economic backing makes such a move virtually unthinkable.

Iraq’s post-transition economy remains dependent on and reflective of U.S. priorities. Bremer’s economic regulations included capping taxes at 15%, guaranteeing the right to 100% foreign ownership of all Iraqi entities, corporate regulations designed to qualify Iraq for the WTO, and continued immunities for companies (such as Halliburton) with oil-related contracts signed before the hand-over.

The U.S. will continue to exercise enormous economic, as well as political and military, control of Iraq. According to the Washington Post, only $366 million of the $18 billion allocated by Congress for Iraqi reconstruction has actually been spent, providing some insight as to why the country remains so intractably destroyed. In recent weeks several billion more were assigned to, though not yet spent on, future projects chosen by the U.S. occupation authorities, not by Iraqis. (It appears the funds to pay Halliburton and other U.S. corporations have come from Iraqi money – oil-for-food funds, frozen assets held in other countries, etc., all usurped by the U.S. occupation.) Dangling the remaining billions of dollars before government officials desperate for funding will continue to provide huge political leverage for the new pro-consul, Ambassador John Negroponte. According to Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the earlier U.S.-appointed Governing Council, the U.S. authorities “have established a system to meddle in our affairs”

With the collapse of all earlier claims and the exposure of the lies on which the war was justified (weapons of mass destruction, Iraq-al Qaeda links, mobile biological labs, etc.) the Bush administration now claims that the war was still justified because the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein has been ousted and Iraq is now “free and democratic.” While there is little doubt most Iraqis were delighted to see the end of the Baathist regime, there is no such thrill with the U.S. occupation. To the contrary – in a May 2004 poll conducted by the occupation authorities themselves, 55% of Iraqis said they would feel safer if all U.S. troops immediately left the country. In a later poll, less than half of Iraqis say that their life is better than before the U.S. invasion and war.

The “transfer of custody” of Saddam Hussein, like the “transfer of sovereignty” of Iraq as a whole, is a sham. The former Iraqi president not only remains in the physical custody of U.S. occupation troops. The trial itself, unlike the model sought by many human rights campaigners which would have combined Iraqi and international jurisdiction (like the model now underway in Sierra Leone), has been organized, paid for and arranged by U.S. officials, primarily from the FBI and the Justice Department, and their Iraqi surrogates. Those Iraqis include Salem Chalabi, nephew of the exiled Iraqi felon and former Pentagon minion Ahmad Chalabi, who serves as coordinator of the special court where Saddam Hussein and top officials of his regime will be tried. Moving forward without the UN, without international jurisdiction and without acknowledging the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, this American-with-an-Iraqi-face court may be the first war crimes tribunal the Bush administration could love.

In what may become a foretelling of the limited power of the Iraqi officials ostensibly running the court, another Iraqi judge recently faced the consequences of challenging the U.S. occupation authorities even after the supposed “end of occupation.” In a June 28th story reported in the British Financial Times but ignored in much of the U.S. press, an Iraqi prisoner found not guilty of an attack against U.S. occupation forces, and the judge who acquitted him, came face to face with the continuing realities of U.S. power. U.S. authorities “refused to uphold an Iraqi judges’ order acquitting him of attempted murder of coalition troops….U.S. prosecutors said that he was being returned to the controversial Abu Ghraib prison because under the Geneva Conventions they were not bound by Iraqi law…. The Central Criminal Court is a hybrid legal institution, created by the American-led occupation, in which U.S. lawyers prepare cases for Iraqi prosecutors to present to Iraqi judges, who were in turn chosen by the coalition.”

With such direct U.S. involvement behind the scenes of the trial, the possibility that defense lawyers will be allowed to subpoena and question the former allies of Saddam Hussein, particularly those who enabled the worst of his crimes, remains virtually nil. Those officials could include current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to negotiate oil deals with Saddam Hussein, and ranking officials of the Reagan administration which provided financial support, military intelligence, agricultural credits and other aid to Saddam Hussein. They might include, for instance, officials of the Reagan-era Commerce Department who authorized selling Baghdad the seed stock for anthrax, e-coli, botulinum and other biological weapons, as well as the British, German, and other allied governments who provided Iraq with precursor chemicals, biological growth medium, and more.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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