US makes U-turn on Iraq council

A planned Iraqi assembly to elect an interim council was quashed by US officials this week.

Nearly two months since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, US authorities here say they will personally select 25 to 30 Iraqis to staff an interim political council. The new process is a detour from earlier plans to assemble a large convention of Iraqis who would democratically choose a new generation of leaders and decide the shape of their future government.

Although the decision expedites the creation of an official Iraqi leadership team, coalition administrators still need to navigate a morass of political, cultural, and religious considerations to create the group. And because the US-dominated coalition will create the list, disgruntled groups may hold America directly responsible for a defective or unbalanced council.

The sharp shift in gears touches on the frustrations of the Iraqis, who have been growing increasingly impatient with the glacial return to basic public services and the lack of progress in forming an interim Iraqi authority.

It also addresses the concerns of US and British officials, who have been struggling to come up with the right formula for a transitional body that will calm the country's precarious security situation and be representative of Iraqis as a whole.

The council, which would be formed within six weeks, will be chosen by the US and British governments "through a process of consultation" with various Iraqis. Later, a much wider group of Iraqis would be drawn together to hold a constitutional convention, where delegates would draft the dimensions of the country's new government and pave the way to elections.

This new picture for the future of postwar Iraq is more of an emerging portrait than a paint-by-numbers plan for how to remake a nation unhinged after 35 year of totalitarian Baath Party rule. It represents the clearest acknowledgment yet of a drift emanating from the occupation powers here for several weeks.

The new plan means that the seven parties who call themselves the "leadership council," primarily representing Iraqis who were living in exile or otherwise outside the grasp of Mr. Hussein's regime, will not be permitted to assume sole control of an interim governing authority as they had expected to do.

Some representatives of the seven groups, often dubbed the "G-7" here, have been grumbling with disapproval over what they feel is a far different approach than the one they were led to believe the Bush administration would take when they signed onto its regime-change regimen ahead of the war in late March. The seven, who include the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq led by Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress of Iyad Alawi, the Shiite Muslim movement of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, the Shiite Dawa Party and the new democratic movement of Nasir al-Chadirch, were to have met Monday to formulate a joint response to the new plans announced by US and British officials, acting jointly as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

But L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, told reporters Monday that the appointment of a political council did not signal the rolling back of plans to pass on governing powers to the Iraqis themselves.

"The coalition's task is to hand the administration over to an Iraqi interim government as soon as possible," said Mr. Bremer, adding that this would involve "continuing intensive negotiations with people from all around the country." He said that there had never been a commitment to start off the postwar period with the immediate creation of an Iraqi government.

"There will be no provisional government. The UN resolution [on postwar Iraq] is quite clear," Bremer said. "It's an Iraqi interim administration."

He rattled off a list of people he wants to see included in the interim government, some of whom are not represented in the seven political groups which saw themselves as poised to take power, such as women and numerically small ethnic minorities such as Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Turkmens.

"Most of the Iraqis we talked to have been anxious to move ahead to establish an interim authority," he said. "We have felt that this is the best way to get that moving forward quickly."

Most here agree that there is a pressing need for Bremer's team to demonstrate progress, and soon. US soldiers have been attacked almost daily in the past week and-a-half. But not all Iraqis are disappointed by the efforts to broaden the spectrum of future decision-makers beyond the seven parties.

"The parties who came from outside Iraq do not represent the Iraqi people, and the Americans are starting to realize that. The people in these parties did not suffer as we did," says Maj. Ali al-Haideri, the editor of the Ninth of April newspaper.

Still, Major Haideri says, the process of coming up with some sort of Iraqi interim authority has been too slow and disorganized, and that, along with the general state of insecurity, rampant crime and economic deprivation, is losing the US-led occupation authority fans every day. At least a third of Iraqis, he estimates, say they would prefer to go back to life under the Baathist regime.

"We've lost public support for this period. The next six weeks will be the last chance for the Americans - and for the Iraqis cooperating with the Americans," says Haideri.

US-appointed policymakers in Iraq say they understand that their time frame for making things work is not indefinite. But they also express a priority on getting it right the first time.

"We are motivated by a real sense of urgency," says a senior CPA official. However, he adds transitional plans are still amorphous and need more Iraqi input.

"The fact is, the CPA's going to be in charge until there is a sovereign representative of the Iraqi government chosen. We don't see a short cut to that."

Many Iraqis already seem to have lost patience with what they see as as foot-dragging in the occupation powers' failure so far to come up with an interim authority. At the Abu Khanifa Mosque on Friday, an imam told worshipers at the weekly sermon to "Beware the new tyrant." Late Sunday, a US soldier was killed in front of the mosque.

"It's not very clear, the motives of the American invasion or Iraq," says Dr. Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science of Baghdad University.

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