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Published: Friday, 7/18/2003

The long road home

THE creation of an Iraqi governing council is an important step in the very necessary task of putting Iraqis in charge of Iraq, permitting the United States eventually to withdraw its own forces and go home. The urgency of the launching of such a process is obvious.

For example, the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division, in the Middle East since last September and in Iraq from the beginning of the U.S. invasion, has just been told that its assignment there has become indefinite in length.

The 3rd had been scheduled to come home this summer, so the news came as a disappointment to many of the troops and certainly their families back home.

Currently we have 148,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The enterprise is costing the American taxpayer $3.9 billion a month. India, which the United States had hoped would provide what would have been the largest contingent in Iraq after the U.S. presence, decided Monday that it would not participate in the operation without a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing participation. The Indian decision was a disappointment to the United States but consistent with India's continuing opposition to the Iraq war.

Potential Western European troop donors in NATO are still holding back, partly because of the Bush Administration having stuck its fingers in their eyes before the war, and partly because American companies such as Halliburton and Bechtel have so far continued to gobble up all the fat contracts in Iraq, keeping the Europeans out of the money-making part of the affair.

In the meantime, resistance in Iraq to U.S. rule is growing and becoming more violent. Another American soldier was killed and 10 wounded earlier this week. It remains to be known the degree to which Iraqi resistance is organized, led perhaps by ex-Baath Party, Saddam Hussein himself, or his remaining loyalists, or whether it is more spontaneous and nationalist in its orientation, disorganized at its roots.

Whatever the case, there may be some reason to hope that as a progressive hand-over to some sort of Iraqi authority is achieved, at least some of the opposition to foreign, non-Muslim, American rule will diminish.

There is a risk, of course, that the members of the new council will themselves become targets of Iraqi popular resentment of American rule, as surrogate, softer targets than the heavily armed Americans.

If that is the case, the phenomenon will show itself shortly in attacks on council members.

The Governing Council itself, although it includes some of the usual suspects, such as Department of Defense exile favorite and convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi, seems to be somewhat representative of the rainbow of political, ethnic, and religious elements in Iraq. There are 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Turkomen, and one Assyrian Christian. Three are women.

They come from different professions and different parts of the country, for the most part. Mr. Chalabi comes from London. The council is authorized to make some important decisions, including the naming of government ministers, the preparation of a constitution, and arrangements for elections, although U.S. administrator Jerry Bremer keeps the last word on all decisions, for the time being at least.

Despite the potential and inevitable problems, the creation of the council and the beginning of its work are positive developments, constituting an important milestone for the United States and Iraq along the route toward a return to self-government there and - eventually, some day - a U.S. exit.



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