26 March 2004
What will happen on 30 June? Every day now, the gunmen attack the Iraqis who work for Westerners, for the occupation powers, for the reconstruction companies, for journalists.
Just two weeks after they murdered a translator for an American newspaper chain, they came for the translator of Time magazine, driving a red station wagon up to his vehicle near the magazine's Baghdad headquarters on Wednesday and firing at least four bullets into him. Within hours came news of another Iraqi translator, this time working for a major American company, shot dead in the capital.
In just four months, at least 40 Iraqi civilians working for the Coalition Provisional Authority - the occupying power in Iraq - have been assassinated. In six months, insurgents have killed more than 600 Iraqi policemen wearing the new pale blue uniforms of the American-paid force. "Death to collaborators", is now spray-painted on the walls of Baghdad. Another chilling graffito says "One God, One Country, One Saddam" - an Iraqi variation, perhaps, of Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer - and all Iraqis know that 30 June is the date to which all such warnings are directed.
America, according to the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, will then hand "sovereignty" back to the Iraqi people - or at least to the American-appointed government which will rule until "democratic" elections are held. "One hundred days from now," Mr Bremer said on Wednesday, "Iraqis will be sovereign in their own land and responsible for their own future."
But this is physically and politically unlikely. At least 120,000 US troops will remain in this "sovereign" territory, at the request of the American-chosen government, and if the insurgents now struggling against the Western forces here can continue to strike at Iraq's new security forces, the American military will not be able to retreat to the desert camps and barracks assigned to them.
Indeed, many Iraqi policemen fear there will be a determined attempt to take over their stations on or after 30 June, along with attacks on the poorly trained and weak Iraqi army.
Just two days ago, we had a disturbing taste of what might happen when gunmen ambushed a minibus containing police recruits near Hillah, south of Baghdad. They killed at least nine of them, a massacre which was typically unreported on the US-funded radio station in Iraq but which sent an immediate message to the Iraqi security forces.
On the same day, the police chief in Babel province was shot and killed. Just over a month ago, armed insurgents attacked on the main police station in Fallujah, occupying the building and killing all the police officers they could find.
Many attacks on police now go unreported - like many attacks on occupation troops - and Mr Bremer's publicity men still hope that by failing to mention these assaults, Iraqis can be gulled into believing that their future is secure, that violence is decreasing, that 30 June will mark a smooth hand-over of power.
The US death toll mounted when a soldier was killed north of Baghdad yesterday after he and two colleagues went to investigate a home-made bomb reported by local Iraqi policemen in Baqouba. The two other soldiers were wounded.
Another American soldier from the 1st Infantry Division was shot dead on Wednesday.