U.S. `exit strategy' for Iraq unravels

Shiite demand raises doubt about feasibility of June 30 deadline


WASHINGTON - Two weeks ago, the Bush administration settled on an "exit strategy" for Iraq in which the United States committed itself to establishing self-rule there by next summer - well ahead of its previous schedule and just as the American presidential election season will be getting under way.

But the administration's initial plan for that transfer of authority has unraveled, raising doubts whether the June 30 deadline for ending the American occupation authority in Baghdad is feasible.

Balancing act

At stake is whether the administration can reconcile President Bush's desire for a speedy transfer of sovereignty to a friendly Iraqi government next year, with the need to have some sort of electoral process to ensure that government's validity in the eyes of Iraqis and the rest of the world.

The "process" proposed amounted to less than an election.

Instead, it was an elaborate arrangement to hold caucuses throughout Iraq and give the Iraqi Governing Council considerable oversight.

The administration's quandary sharpened this week when Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's senior Shiite cleric, laid down his definition of a legitimate government.

Nothing less than an election was acceptable, he declared - a demand the United States and the Iraqi Governing Council have to weigh.

Shiite support

Other Shiite leaders supported the ayatollah's formulation, knowing that Shiites - who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population and are better organized than other groups - would be the likely beneficiaries of an early national ballot.

The fundamental question is whether the administration has left itself enough time to put in place a government that can survive and be seen as legitimate.

U.S. policy-makers say that it is not just the American election timetable that requires quick action to transfer power.

Bush's Thanksgiving Day pledge in Baghdad vowed that U.S. military forces "will stay until the job is done."

Hostility to occupation

But hostility to the U.S. occupation is growing so fast, policy-makers say, that if Iraq does not get to self-government quickly, attacks on American forces could increase, along with Iraqi support for them.

Administration officials say that a national election is impractical in the absence of up-to-date voter rolls but that a system of provincial and local elections, town meetings and caucuses might be acceptable to the Shiites.

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