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The tone of voice of the interior minister and the defense minister of Iraq changed in the wake of the question put to them by a correspondent of the New York Times. In a press conference held on Thursday in Baghdad, while the assault on the city of Najaf was at its height, the American reporter wanted to know whether the honorable ministers thought - he asked each of them to reply in turn - the Iraqi government would be able to gain the support of the public while American and other occupation forces were carrying out military operations in the name of the government.

A few minutes earlier, the interior minister had reprimanded an Arab correspondent from the paper Al Sharq al Awsat, after he sought a reaction to the criticism voiced of the Iraqi government by the governor of Basra. However, the New York Times is treated differently.

Will it be all right if only one of us answers your question?

The correspondent said yes.

This dialogue is only a small example of the feeling being reported in the Iraqi press that American control of the country continues to be total despite efforts to present the Baghdad government as en independent entity.

In Najaf, for example, the Americans divided the work so that their forces operated outside the area of the Imam Ali Mosque, while the Iraqi army and police operated adjacent to the mosque, so no one would be able to claim that the Americans had damaged the Shi'ite holy place. But who gave the order to open fire? Who operated helicopters? Who decides if there will be negotiations with Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric? It's all in the hands of the American command.

This kind of division of labor between a national government, which is still taking its initial steps on the way to obtaining legitimacy, and an occupation army is an interesting political effort. That's because military cooperation between a state which no longer has the formal status of occupied territory and a foreign force which no longer has the formal status of occupier, entails not only close coordination but above all goodwill and a significant giving up of prestige by both sides. On the face of it, the Iraqi government can ask the U.S. forces to get out anytime it pleases, just as the U.S. administration can decide that it cannot do without several vital areas in Iraq. But both the Iraqis and the Americans understand that at this stage of the war neither side has the option of operating without the other and neither side can afford to declare that there is no partner on the other side.

It is almost impossible to resist the temptation to draw a comparison between the situation in Iraq and the situation that will develop in the Gaza Strip following the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF will continue to be the military force that will handle security in the Gaza Strip - if not from inside then certainly from just outside. The Palestinian administration, whatever form it takes, will need Israeli assistance in a thousand and one ways: from the supply of electricity and water to the transfer of patients and the maintenance of passageways for people and goods.

In any event, as in Iraq, the occupation will continue to exist even if new names are found for it. Like the United States, which was apprehensive about the possibility of allowing the Iraqis to manage their country by themselves, Israel too cannot abandon Gaza to the Gazans. The U.S. understood that it had to find a partner and it had to eat humble pie in order find its Iraqi partner. Some of the Iraqi cabinet ministers were at least crooks if not terrorists; aid funds for Iraq did not reach their destination under the new government; the new Iraqi army consists largely of Ba'ath Party members whom the U.S. civilian governor dismissed; an emergency regime has been declared in Iraq; the death penalty is again in force; and the aspiration for democracy will have to wait.

However, the U.S. has a partner that will not let its "Hamas," namely the separatists of Moktada al-Sadr, seize the reins of control. This partnership is the guarantee that the U.S. will be able to leave Iraq at some point. This is an important lesson, from which Israel, the most veteran of the occupying countries, can learn something: It's impossible to leave an occupied territory just like that; it's necessary first to find an alternative master, even if he is one-eyed and deaf.