April 6, 2004

Editorial

Obsessing About the Calendar

New York Times

President Bush keeps clinging to his politically driven deadline of June 30 for handing over symbolic sovereignty in Iraq to an Iraqi entity. While everyone is eager for the country to be turned over to its people, simply sticking to a timetable is not the same as making real progress toward self-government. After the weekend's clashes between the American-led occupation forces and heavily armed militias loyal to a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Bush presented the date as a watershed and its timing as a test of American will. In fact, neither is true.

So far, the June 30 date is nothing more than a space on a calendar in Iraq and some election-year symbolism back home. No one even knows what the new Iraqi governing body will look like or how to keep those who are chosen to serve from looking like mere American puppets. The United Nations, whose help and involvement the administration desperately needs, is not committed to taking part, and does not seem to have been told what kind of decision-making structure it is being invited to join.

Meanwhile, the majority Shiite Muslims, the minority Sunni Muslims and the estranged Kurds of northern Iraq have shown scant interest in cooperating with each other, let alone embracing the federalist power sharing the interim constitution envisions. The Shiites expect to take control, and rules that are supposed to protect the rights of the Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities after June 30 have only lukewarm support from the few Shiite leaders whom the occupation authorities consider friends. Some of the more radical Shiite clerics are in full revolt, and even purported moderates, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have failed to condemn the recent violence.

The United States and its occupation partners are thus in real danger of handing over a meaningless badge of sovereignty to a government that is divided internally, is regarded as illegitimate by the people and has no means other than foreign armies in Iraq to enforce its authority. American forces will still be facing hostile fire, still be undermanned and still not be adequately backed up internationally.

Nothing about the way the occupation forces have handled recent troubles inspires much confidence in their ability to navigate the much trickier challenges to come. Shutting down the newspaper loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr was a recklessly bad idea that accomplished nothing but to inflame Mr. Sadr's followers. Once his militias took to the streets in bloody assaults on occupation forces, authorities announced that an unnamed Iraqi judge had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Sadr, in the murder last year of Ayatollah Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric. The murder was horrific and justice should be served, although it is not reassuring that the warrant was made public only after the weekend's violence.

Justice would now seem to require both the arrest of Mr. Sadr, who has taken refuge in his mosque, as well as a demonstration of force in the city of Falluja, where Sunni mobs murdered and mutilated four American security guards last week. Inevitably, in Washington, military officials are talking about more troops.

Allowing the June 30 deadline to slip could anger Shiites who remain publicly supportive of the transition, but it would hardly amount to a capitulation to forces that want to "decide the course of democracy by the use of force," as Mr. Bush claimed. It would be heartening to see the president spend less time defending his timetable and more preparing for a real transfer of power. In particular, that means producing a plan that would bring the United Nations back in as a partner. He should also listen to members of his party, like Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who wisely said on Sunday that it was time to have a debate about the June 30 deadline.