By Jessica Mathews and Marina Ottaway

Originally published in the Financial Times, April 21, 2004

Whether to stick to the June 30 date for transferring sovereignty in Iraq is not a matter of national resolve, as Americans are being told, but one of facing the facts and adapting.

The Iraqi insurgency means that the plan to shift responsibility for government quickly - and to an entity that the vast majority of Iraqis sees as an illegitimate American puppet - is no more likely to succeed than a policy of conjuring up Iraqi forces almost overnight to achieve security in a country saturated with weapons, riven by divisions and without experience of rule of law.

In the face of rising attacks on US forces, the Bush administration decided last autumn to shift responsibility for security increasingly to newly created Iraqi forces, particularly police. The strategy recognised that the occupation itself was becoming the issue in many places. Turning security over to Iraqis would allow US forces to retreat to bases outside the cities, lower their impact on Iraqis' daily lives and, it was hoped, quell the growing violence.

US officials hailed the strategy's success as Iraqi forces rocketed, on paper, to more than 200,000. In November and December, the Coalition Provisional Authority reported that it was hiring 11,000 policemen a week. But, last month, documents revealed that the regularly reported number of 78,000 policemen in fact comprised 2,324 fully trained individuals, an astounding 59,638 untrained men, and the rest in various stages of training. The fiction that Iraqi forces can achieve security has now been abandoned in the streets, if not in official statements. US troops are now fighting to re-establish the control they relinquished prematurely.

The political plan is equally in tatters. In mid-November, the Bush administration bowed to pressures to return sovereignty to Iraqis quickly. It dropped its earlier opposition to an interim government but stayed determined to impose its own views on political outcomes. Rather than draft a basic administrative law to carry the country to elections, it chose to use an interim constitution to settle Iraq's most contentious issues, from relations between Arabs and Kurds to the role of Islamic law and the position of women.

After Iraqis rejected an effort to form the interim government through closely controlled regional caucuses, the authority unwisely settled for turning the discredited Governing Council into a sovereign government. The result was to threaten the interests of nearly every Iraqi interest group in one way or another through a process that excluded leaders with large political followings.

It is now wholly unrealistic to continue on this path to the June 30 deadline. Influential Iraqis in and outside the Governing Council have already distanced themselves from the US attempt to curb the insurrections in Falluja and the Shia Muslim south by force. Instead they are seeking negotiated solutions.

What, then, can Washington do? The priority is to re-establish a degree of security by putting US troops back in the streets of Iraq's cities and towns. This will have a heavy long-term cost in rising public resentment but there is no immediate alternative. At the same time, the "Iraqisation" security plan must be thoroughly re-examined.

It is just as important to switch to a credible political process, replacing the extraordinarily narrow political consultation with hand-picked Iraqis by a broad process comparable to the loya jirga in Afghanistan. That means dealing with all groups with demonstrated power and influence, even if their politics merit condemnation. But this cannot be accomplished by June 30 and will almost certainly require scrapping the interim constitution.

For reasons of legitimacy, local acceptability and expertise in this role, the United Nations should be asked to take the lead in this consultation. Until now, the US attitude has been that the UN's help is welcome as long as it does not interfere with its plans and deadlines. That will have to change. But it cannot become a strategy to "turn over" the process - or "dump the mess" - on the UN. The political transition would have to be run as a genuine partnership, with the responsibility for security remaining with the coalition.

There is nothing sacred about June 30, and no failure in dropping a plan that is not working in favour of one that might. Broad inclusion of Iraqis is admittedly demanding and highly risky but it is far more likely to produce a stable, moderately pluralistic government in Baghdad. That modest goal - not fully fledged democracy - should be the aim. Sending more American troops should not divert the US from recognising that they are a palliative. Iraq cannot be pacified by military means alone. Without a new political plan, adopted quickly, the violence will grow and eventually overwhelm everyone involved.

Jessica Mathews is president and Marina Ottaway is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace