New fast track for Iraqi sovereignty

US plan: Iraqi government will take power July 1, 2004.

No longer a distant promise, the arrival of independence for Iraq - from both the hated former regime and the chafing occupying authority - has been moved up and is now set for next summer.

Under a decision that represents a full reversal of American policy up to now for postwar Iraq, the US has agreed to creation of a provisional government that will assume full sovereignty by July 1, 2004.

The new plan - arrived at quickly this weekend after a week of mounting US and coalition casualties - meets the rising Iraqi demand for a faster transfer of power. It also addresses the Bush administration's newfound sense of pressure to devise an exit strategy in time for the presidential campaign season.

Within hours of announcing the plan, US troops suffered their deadliest single day of the Iraq conflict on Saturday when two helicopters collided over the northern city of Mosul. The cause of the crash - which killed 17 Americans - is still under investigation. But residents in the area reported seeing a missile hit one of the helicopters, causing it to fall and crash into the other. The incident pushes to more than 400 the number of combat deaths in Iraq.

Although some American military forces would remain in Iraq "at the invitation" of the new government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under administrator Paul Bremer would end July 1, 2004, say Iraqi officials.

A provisional national assembly would name a delegation of 15 members to write a constitution, and full national elections would be held by the end of 2005.

"We don't want the withdrawal of Coalition forces to be abrupt," says Ebrahim al-Jafiri, a Governing Council member who represents the Shiite Dawa Party. "It would leave a vacuum."

But questions remain about how the plan for a provisional government - which only days ago was still rejected by American officials as a path to instability and political chaos - will address some of Iraq's most pressing problems. Among key challenges will be security, economic recovery, and legitimacy for the new government.

The council members say they will take on more of the security issue, by overseeing the continuing transfer of policing functions from Coalition to Iraqi forces, and will be responsible for implementing the steps laid out to reach a provisional government in seven months.

Calling security an issue that "cannot wait," council member Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd, says that if allowed, Iraqis will do a better job of policing themselves because they know their country and their people.

"Most Iraqis see the Americans as a guarantor," he says, "but not for searching this or that house or attacking this or that place. That must be left to Iraqis."

Some Iraqis see the creation of a national assembly as a way of quelling unrest. "A large segment of the population not represented [by the Governing Council] now has an opportunity to be fully represented. This should undermine arguments of those violently opposed to the [current] government," says Ali Allawi, Iraqi minister of trade.

Mr. Jafiri, who is affiliated with the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite leader, agrees that creating a legitimate Iraqi government will satisfy most Iraqis. But he warns that progress toward a new, more representative government could also infuriate those forces set on destabilizing Iraq - and thus lead to more attacks in the short term.

"If all goes well, the political process should help consolidate the security situation," says Jafiri, noting that crime is already down in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Attacks by resistance forces, on the other hand, may well increase as Iraqis show success at taking on their own affairs. "The more politically successful we are, the more violent the acts of sabotage get," he says.

On the economic front, some leaders worry that the new plans put a question mark over recently reactivated ministries and could stall investment and international donations - and thus a recovery in a country with over 60 percent unemployment.

"All the institutions in operation are - as of [Saturday] - lame ducks," says Mr. Allawi. "The transition period is too long.... It creates a hiatus we cannot afford."

The fact remains that it will be the same 24-member Governing Council - which US officials only last week were calling inept and more interested in international travel than running their own country - taking on more responsibility for setting the country's course towards independence.

But even some members who agree with the US criticisms say they expect a change. A council with real authority to shape Iraq's future will act differently from one that had a subordinate role, they say.

"We have been unable to solve [Iraqis'] problems because the authority lies with the CPA," says Mr. Othman. "We have met with our ministries every week. But when we haven't the authority to solve our problems, [some members] may prefer not to go [to the meetings]."

Some US officials in Baghdad see it differently. "The president is putting himself on the line here," says a CPA official. "We're spending $87 billion - that the president personally fought for - and our casualties are rising. It's time the Iraqis on the council stepped up to the plate."

The process by which Iraqis are to make the leap from partial observers to owners of their own destiny will play out on two "tracks," officials say: One provisional, the other longer and final.

By June, a 250-member transitional national assembly - one member for every 100,000 Iraqis - is to be "elected" by provincial committees made up of local elites: tribal leaders, trade unionists, religious leaders, academics, and business leaders.

According to Jafiri, members of the national assembly will have to be 30, have a bachelor's degree, be free of past Baathist Party affiliation, and have had no participation in atrocities or criminal activity.

The national assembly will then be charged with naming an executive branch by July 1. On the second track, a delegation of experts elected from the national assembly would write a constitution. A census is likely to be conducted for final elections that would be held once the constitution is ratified.

Othman says that many Iraqi leaders have argued that "some issues can wait, but others like the security issue cannot wait." They have won the battle to put off writing the constitution for as much as two years, while a provisional government working under a "basic law" handles immediate security and economic recovery issues.

But one thorn that will irritate the process is the question of the Kurdish north's right to some form of autonomy under a federal system. Another is the question of exactly who will write Iraq's constitution and whether the Shiite majority will feel fully represented in that process - and accept the final results.

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