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As Iraq handover looms, transition questions remain

US-led coalition handed over control of the first of 25 ministries this week.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2004


With Iraq hurtling towards sovereignty, US administrator Paul Bremer is running out of time.

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His team is working hard to create an aura of inevitably around June 30, the scheduled date for the restoration of a limited form of sovereignty to Iraq.

Officials have fanned out across Iraq to explain the plan, and Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority has started to loosen the reins. This week, the health ministry was released from CPA control, the first of 25 ministries to be put in Iraqi hands over the next three months.

But with fewer than 100 days to go before the Governing Council takes over from the US-led coalition, the leadership here has yet to resolve Iraq's most fundamental challenge - how an independent Iraq should divide power between its Shiite majority and large minorities like the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

It's a question so fundamental to Iraq's future it overshadows all of the short-term successes. And the obstacles to resolving it appear to be mounting, not diminishing.

Adnan Pachachi, one of America's closest allies on its appointed Governing Council, says he's confident the problems can be resolved - but isn't quite sure how. Asked on Wednesday what can be done, he replied "it's too early to be asking this question."

The US is hoping the greatest short-term advantage to the hand over will be a reduction in horrific attacks like the one that took place in the Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah Wednesday. Four US contractors were killed in a roadside ambush and AP television footage showed their mutilated bodies being dragged through the streets by residents, many chanting anti-US slogans.

A UN team is currently in Iraq to discuss how to set up elections and construct an interim government. Currently, the government is expected to consist of the 25 Governing Councils plus an undetermined number of new officials. Koffi Annan's special Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to arrive in the next week to negotiate a compromise among Iraq's political factions. But even before he arrives, one of Iraq's most enigmatic and powerful players has begun throwing wrenches into the works.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shiite cleric elected by no one but revered by millions of Iraqis, has warned that the current transition plan is a recipe for internal conflict. In a letter to Mr. Brahimi earlier this month, Ms. Sistani said he would snub the envoy unless the UN brands the transitional constitution, agreed upon by the US and it's Governing Council appointees, "nonbinding."

The US had been hoping that UN support for the constitution would ease complaints like Sistani's and make the transition plan look more legitimate.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Institute, says compromise is still possible. "I think that Sistani and his allies have it within them."

But what compromises are possible, particularly over the issue of the so-called "Kurdish veto," are unclear. The Kurds worry that without guarantees, any new Iraqi state will simply ignore their demands and move to retake the autonomous area they carved out for themselves in the north of the country in the 1990s.

Minority leverage

The essence of the veto is the transitional constitution's Article 61, which says that if a two-thirds majority in any three Iraqi provinces rejects an eventual permanent constitution, scheduled to be written next year, then the constitution will go back to the drawing board. That gives Iraq's three Kurdish provinces, who want broad autonomy for the center, strong leverage to have their demands met.

So far, the Kurds position has been helped by Mr. Bremer who was able to use his slot as a top administrator as a bully pulpit, drawing concessions from Iraqi leaders with warnings that US control will simply be extended if they don't make tough choices. But all of the players are now well aware that Mr. Bremer will be replaced by a US ambassador on June 30, and that simple knowledge is already afecting his power and prestige.