US ups pressure on Iraqi council

Robert Blackwill, of the National Security Council, is expected in Baghdad this week.

With a deadline bearing down for setting Iraq's course for writing a constitution and holding elections, American authorities who want faster action by US-appointed Iraqi leaders are starting to talk tough.

Work faster, take your task seriously, and come to an agreement on how the new constitution will be written, the Americans are saying. If you don't, we might entertain ideas of replacing you. To underscore the urgency, the White House is sending Robert Blackwill, who heads the Iraq political transition portfolio of the National Security Council's Iraq task force, to Baghdad this week.

Members of Iraq's Governing Council say they sympathize with the need to move quickly, but counter that they are often limited by the fact that all their decisions must be approved by the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by administrator Paul Bremer. As for the constitutional process, some members who support a different plan from the one envisioned by Mr. Bremer are holding out, hoping the American rush will prompt the Authority to relent and accept their ideas.

Increasingly, the complex process of determining Iraq's future is playing out like a game of chicken, with each side hoping to force the other to blink - all the while maintaining a veneer of friendliness.

"We understand our American friends are in a hurry, but we are also obliged to follow a deliberate process on very sensitive questions," says Jalal Talabani, a longtime leader from Iraq's northern Kurdish region who holds the Governing Council's rotating presidency. "We cannot be rushed in deciding something so important as Iraq's future."

The Americans have one eye on a United Nations Security Council resolution setting a Dec. 15 deadline for establishing a timetable for the constitution and elections. But at the same time, the US wants a gradual taking of greater control by the Iraqis that will allow US troop levels to fall to approximately 105,000 by next May, as now planned.

Outside observers say both sides are employing a bit of brinkmanship in an attempt to win concessions from the other.

But the US, as the ultimate authority in Iraq, could simply opt to replace the council with an alternative if Iraqi leaders push back too hard. One idea being floated is to turn to a provisional government. That option is closer to the transitional process Afghanistan is following and is reminiscent of proposals for a faster transition to Iraqi sovereignty that some Security Council members, in particular France and Germany, suggested this fall.

But with the White House continuing to state publicly that the US is working well with the Council, some analysts believe the administration is only considering dropping the council as a last resort, since that option too would take time.

The administration is also stepping up criticism of the council for domestic political reasons, some analysts say.

Surveys show many Americans disapprove of the way things are going in Iraq and increasingly doubt that a smooth transition to democracy will happen quickly. The idea may be to blame the Iraqis for failures - or for any eventual decision to switch to a different plan for Iraq's political transition.

The vision favored by Bremer is for delegates to a constitutional convention to be elected at the provincial level by local tribal leaders, academics, business and religious leaders. The resulting constitution would allow elections to be held by the end of 2004 and a new Iraqi government to assume full sovereignty.

But some prominent Shiite religious leaders, who represent 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, want a national

election to determine who writes the new constitution. That option would raise fears among secular Iraqis or minorities that they could end up with a theocracy.

However, many Iraqis - including Shiites - say the most important thing for them is to have educated individuals who represent the diverse population writing the constitution.

"I'm just a car mechanic, I know I couldn't write a constitution but I do want it to be done by educated Iraqis who will be fair and assure us of rights that have been denied us for 35 years," says Ahmed Hussein, a young man in Baghdad's Shiite-dominated Sadr City.

But a national election just to elect constitutional delegates would take a long time to set up, and would not meet the Americans' current timetable.

As an alternative, Mr. Talabani says he supports the idea of a provisional government that would assume full sovereignty and responsibility for Iraq's affairs while a final constitution is written and elections held. "Such a a process would take a maximum of two years."

Talabani, who assumed the council presidency this month, says his first order of business was "to activate the Governing Council," and he maintains progress is being made. New committees have been formed to delegate authority, he says, and Council attendance - which Bremer has criticized - has improved.

Other members say part of the blame for slow decisionmaking must be assigned to the Americans, whom they see as reluctant to give up authority. "We hope we will be able to implement more of our own decisions without always going through" the CPA, says Dara Noor Alzin, a judge who was jailed under the former regime for decisions that were unacceptable to Saddam Hussein.

Insisting that relations with the Americans "are not difficult," Mr. Noor Alzin says nevertheless that the Council has made many decisions that have yet to be implemented because Bremer has not signed off on them.

Some Iraqis say the members of the governing council are thieves, "Ali Babas" who are only interested in creating jobs for their family. But a surprising number praise a group that was only assembled in July, and are impressed when disputes and political differences are played out publicly in a country that is accustomed to a monolithic political face.

At the same time, however, there is a strong sense that in the end, the Americans remain all-powerful and will have their way - a perspective that would only be cemented if the US decided to alter or replace the council.

"America wants Iraqis to lead Iraqis, but we know America wants a president who will do what America wants," says Mr. Hussein, the mechanic. "If the Americans want my father to be president," he says grinning, "he will be president."

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