On May 30, the Coalition held a ceremony in the Kurdistan town of Erbil to mark its handover of security in Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces from the Coalition to the Iraqi government. General Benjamin Mixon, the US commander for northern Iraq, praised the Iraqi government for overseeing all aspects of the handover. And he drew attention to the “benchmark” now achieved: with the handover, he said, Iraqis now controlled security in seven of Iraq’s eighteen provinces.
In fact, nothing was handed over. The only Coalition force in Kurdistan is the peshmerga, a disciplined army that fought alongside the Americans in the 2003 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and is loyal to the Kurdistan government in Erbil. The peshmerga provided security in the three Kurdish provinces before the handover and after. The Iraqi army has not been on Kurdistan’s territory since 1996 and is effectively prohibited from being there. Nor did the Iraqi flag fly at the ceremony. It is banned in Kurdistan.
Although the Erbil handover was a sham that Prince Potemkin might have admired, it was not easily arranged. The Bush administration had wanted the handover to take place before the US congressional elections in November. But it also wanted an Iraqi flag flown at the ceremony and some acknowledgement that Iraq, not Kurdistan, was in charge. The Kurds were prepared to include a reference to Iraq in the ceremony, but they were adamant that there be no Iraqi flags. It took months to work out a compromise ceremony with no flags at all. Thus the ceremony was followed by a military parade without a single flag—an event so unusual that one observer thought it might merit mention in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, attended the ceremony alongside Kurdistan’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, but the Iraqi government had no part in supervising the nonexistent handover. While General Mixon, a highly regarded strategist with excellent ties to the Kurds, had no choice but to make the remarks he did, Mowaffak al-Rubaie acknowledged Kurdistan’s distinct nature and the right of the Kurds—approximately six million people, or some 20 percent of Iraq’s population—to chart their own course.
On July 12, the White House released a congressionally mandated report on progress in Iraq. As with the sham handover, the report reflected the administration’s desperate search for indicators of progress since it began its “surge” by sending five additional combat brigades to the country in February 2007. In recent months the Bush administration and its advocates have been promoting the success of the surge in reducing sectarian killing in Baghdad and achieving a turnaround in Anbar province, where former Sunni insurgents are signing up with local militias to fight al-Qaeda.
Although reliable statistics about Iraq are notoriously hard to come by, it does appear that the overall civilian death toll in Baghdad has declined from its pre-surge peak, although it is still at the extremely high …