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COL Gaza news may help U.S. in Iraq

Something is brewing in Gaza that may help U.S. officials think through how to deal with what is boiling in Iraq.

Consider an intriguing article this week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointing out that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and Hamas, longtime rivals, had "made a great deal of progress" toward setting up a new administration to run Gaza after Israel's unilateral withdrawal. The article quoted Hamas leaders as saying that they were willing to participate in the administration of Gaza now that it is being "liberated" and not being turned over in the context of the Oslo peace accords.

Here's the message I take from this: There is nothing like the burden of responsibility to promote accountability. Ariel Sharon has declared his intention to withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip -- without any formal agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon has given up on negotiating with Arafat, let alone Hamas, but he finally understands that Israel cannot go on controlling all these Palestinian lands and remain a Jewish democracy. So he is unilaterally pulling out of Gaza, just as his predecessor, Ehud Barak, pulled out of South Lebanon: You want it, it's yours.

What the Haaretz article tells me is that Arafat and Hamas understand two things: One, the morning after Israel's pullout, they will get to pat themselves on the back for being Gaza's liberators. And two, the morning after the morning after, the Gazans will be tapping Arafat and Hamas leaders on their shoulders to ask for jobs, water and electricity. Yes, Arafat and Hamas will continue to blame Israel for shortages of all those things, but those charges won't quite fly once the Israelis pull out.

And this leads to our challenge in Iraq. America's Baghdad boss, L. Paul Bremer, is absolutely right when he insists that we must turn over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, as promised. Why? Because we may have trained thousands of Iraqi policemen, but without a government of their own, they are defending America -- which they will never do with vigor. The only thing they might defend is a government of their own.

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Moreover, right now many Iraqi leaders blame the United States for what is going wrong in Iraq. Iraq's nascent leaders will begin to act in a concerted and responsible fashion only when they -- like Hamas, Arafat and Hezbollah -- have the burden of responsibility.

I'm not advocating unilateral withdrawal from Iraq. I am advocating putting every ounce of energy we have behind the U.N. effort to replace the current Iraqi Governing Council with a legitimate, broad-based caretaker government to run Iraq from July 1, 2004, until elections in January 2005.

After decades of colonialism, and then a traumatic dictatorship, Iraqi national identity is weak. But there is an Iraqi identity. It takes security, though, for it to emerge. Even Iraqis don't know how strong it is, and they won't know until they are handed the keys.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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