Upswing in violence shifts U.S. policy on Iraq

Power will be transferred to Iraqis by next June

November 16, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Cementing a major policy shift by President Bush, the United States and the Iraqi Governing Council formally agreed yesterday on a plan to transfer sovereignty from American officials back to Iraq by June.

A transitional government will assume "all authorities" after the transfer, Jalal Talabani, current head of the U.S.-appointed 24-member council, said in Baghdad after a six-hour meeting between the council and the top American administrator, L. Paul Bremer III.

The agreement was announced shortly before two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters collided in midair and crashed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing at least 17 of the Americans aboard.

Although U.S. officials say they have no plans to remove American forces battling a growing insurgency, their continued presence in Iraq after the shift in sovereignty will be subject to agreement by the two countries, Talabani said.

The change scheduled for June is intended to show Iraqis that the U.S.-led occupation will come to an end, and demonstrate to an increasingly worried American public that there is a path out of the war in Iraq.

"As of now, we will begin a dialogue with occupation authorities on the security matters," Talabani said, "but when the transitional government is set up, all authorities will be transferred to this government. It will be an independent and sovereign government in charge of security in Iraq, internal security as well as the budget of Iraq, and in control of all parts of Iraq. Then, no other powers will have authority concerning internal security."

The transitional administration would be selected after local meetings or caucuses that Talabani said will involve "all parties" in Iraqi society. Plans also call for a permanent constitution to be drafted and endorsed before the end of 2005, after which an elected administration would take over from the provisional government.

Bush hailed the decision as "an important step toward realizing the vision of Iraq as a democratic, pluralistic country at peace with its neighbors," and said it will restore sovereignty to "a body chosen by the citizens of Iraq and based in a legal framework."

Political concerns

A senior White House official said the new political timetable does not signal an end to the American military presence. "We want to be there to help them," said the official, who briefed reporters by conference call. "When sovereignty is restored, there will be discussions on how to provide a safe security environment."

The official insisted that the president's political calendar was not driving the accelerated timetable and agreed with Iraqi leaders that the transfer of authority would be real and that the United States would not retain veto authority over actions by the new government.

"The word `veto' shouldn't enter anybody's vocabulary," the official said.

The new plan amounts to a major midcourse correction for the Bush administration, which had previously insisted on holding onto power in Iraq until a permanent constitution was written and adopted and elections were held for a national government.

The United States assumed control over Iraq after the fall of Baghdad in April, with administration officials confident that they knew best how to stabilize the country, win the hearts and minds of its people, and steer Iraq toward democracy.

But seven months later, the administration finds itself unable to quell an increasingly effective insurgency, getting less cooperation from ordinary Iraqis and at odds with some members of the governing council.

While the administration hastily reworks its political strategy, the U.S.-led military coalition is changing its military tactics, launching aggressive airstrikes and artillery barrages to wipe out insurgents' hideouts.

Some describe the rapid policy shift as a necessary and welcome response to realities on the ground, as a growing number of assumptions by the administration about postwar Iraq turn out to be wrong and as criticism increases over allegedly faulty or inadequate planning for the postwar period.

"Ideology has come face to face with reality - their models simply do not work," said Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

But the atmosphere of urgency surrounding the recent changes - and the administration's determination to reduce the overall number of American troops in Iraq - has also raised concern that a dangerous signal is being sent to Iraqis and the world: The United States, with a presidential year looming, is looking for a way out.

`Whatever it takes'

The president and his top aides insisted anew late last week that they intend to stay the course in Iraq and have no intention of withdrawing U.S. forces until Iraq has a representative government and poses no threat to other nations in the region.

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