U.S. is set to return power to Iraqis as early as June

New plan calls for change to a more efficient body

November 15, 2003|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council endorsed yesterday the outlines of a new framework for transferring power from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government as early as June.

The plan, which was under discussion in Washington this week, would attempt to transform the unwieldy 24-member council into a more efficient executive body that might be headed by a single person or a small group.

The plan also calls for the creation of a legislative assembly of as many as 200 members. And it would depart from previous plans by delaying the drafting of an Iraqi constitution until after the formation of the interim government.

The delay has been a firm demand of representatives of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, whose religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said that the drafters of the constitution should be democratically elected -- a process that is expected to take many months.

The agreement tentatively reached yesterday by the nine members of the council who share its presidency must be discussed and approved by the full Governing Council, which will begin discussions today.

If adopted, it would be presented to the U.N. Security Council, well ahead of the Dec. 15 deadline set by the Security Council for the submission of a timetable for writing a constitution and elections.

Civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority, participated in last night's sessions, back fresh from meetings with President Bush in Washington this week. Several at the discussions last night said Americans and Iraqis felt they were moving toward a more effective government arrangement than the one in place.

"We feel great, we feel very good. We don't have to write a constitution while we are under occupation or postpone the transfer of sovereignty for two to three years," said Abdel Abid Al-Mahdi, who represents one of a leading Shiite Muslim political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "Bremer came back from Washington very supportive; we have close views and are working on the same track."

The proposal under discussion by the council is almost a complete departure from plans Bremer put forth earlier, which had envisioned the appointment of a constitutional drafting committee and the writing of a constitution as the first step before electing a government.

The timetable for that plan looked likely to drag well into 2005; so after the emergency meetings with Bremer in Washington, the Bush administration backed possible alternatives, one of which would be the replacement of the largely advisory Governing Council with a full-fledged interim government that would allow the United States to sharply reduce its visibility in the country.

The council -- which was given the power to appoint interim ministers and set broad policy -- was created in July after nine weeks of negotiations between leading Iraqi politicians and Bremer. Since its formation, the U.S.-backed body -- made up in large part of expatriate Shiite, Kurd and exiled Sunni opposition leaders -- has failed to make several key decisions.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by the council and by the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority is that Iraqis see them as outsiders who have put their own interests at the fore. Some senior officials worry that the new framework could encounter the same difficulty.

Most of the members of the council lived in exile for years so that some are seen as Iraqis in name only, or as having divided loyalties between their native country and their homes in Europe and the United States.

Further undercutting progress has been the growing strength of the anti-American insurgency, which has created an atmosphere of nervous uncertainty among Iraqis. While the uneasiness is most noticeable in Baghdad, it is increasingly present in most major citiesthroughout the country, where the sounds of automatic weapon fire, bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars have become a violent backbeat to daily life.

In responding to the surge in attacks, U.S. forces have intensified their offensive against suspected guerrilla targets, killing seven people preparing to rocket an American base near Tikrit and pounding positions near the Syrian border and in Baghdad with air assaults, military officials said yesterday.

But even as the aggressive U.S. counterpunch, dubbed Operation Iron Hammer, continued, small roadside bombs planted by guerrillas killed three American soldiers.

Two soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were killed late Thursday, and three were injured north of Baghdad near the Samara, the military said. In the central Baghdad district of Khadra, a U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded yesterday morning by a roadside bomb.

A U.S. contractor also was killed near the city of Balad when gunmen attacked a convoy Thursday, the military said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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