Prague, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, is due to meet President George W. Bush at the White House today to discuss Washington's plans for the handover of power.
The visit comes as the U.S. faces Iraqi opposition to its plans to transfer power to an appointed interim government by 30 June. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the U.S. plan in the southern city of Al-Basrah yesterday. They chanted "No, no to America, yes, yes to al-Sistani, yes, yes to elections."
The most influential Shi'a cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, opposes the U.S. plan for regional caucuses to select a transitional assembly, which will then pick an interim government. Al-Sistani wants the government to be elected by direct vote. Shi'a are believed to make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.
Bremer and other coalition officials say they respect al-Sistani but that direct elections are not feasible by 30 June due to a lack of security, adequate voter records, and polling laws. The U.S. State Department says it considers yesterday's demonstrations in Al-Basrah to be "fundamentally, a good thing," adding that it takes the feelings of the Iraqi people seriously.
The Al-Basrah march was the largest of its kind so far, with some 30,000 participants. That's according to estimates made by British forces who control Iraq's second-largest city. Al-Sistani's aide, Muhammad Baqir al-Mehri, is warning of even bigger rallies if demands for direct elections are not met.
He also said al-Sistani could issue an edict denying legitimacy to any transitional government elected under the U.S. plan. Shi'a fear that 18 provincial caucuses may be rigged to keep them out of power.
Another top Shi'a cleric, Hojat al-Islam Ali Abdulhakim al-Safi, has also reportedly sent a letter to George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is also calling for direct elections and questioning the U.S. handover plan.
Safi dismisses the coalition argument about technical difficulties in letting Iraqis choose their government. He say the U.S. plan only serves the domestic political interests of Bush during an election year.
Members of Iraq's Governing Council, including its current president, Adnan Pachachi, have promised more transparency and public participation in the power transfer. Yesterday, Pachachi said direct elections are the best option in an ideal world: "We all believe that the best way to elect legislative bodies is through direct general elections if we can be sure that there is enough time to conduct these elections and they are well prepared."
However, Pachachi stressed that an agreement between the U.S.-led coalition and the Governing Council to transfer sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government by 30 June should nevertheless be observed.
"We stick to the date of June 30 because we think that any postponement or delay in the handing over of power and restoration of sovereignty will cause deep frustration for the Iraqi people, and I don't think anybody wants to bear this responsibility," he said.
The Governing Council has also warned that any delay in the handover of power will only result in an extension of the occupation of Iraq. In an effort to find an acceptable compromise, Bremer plans to meet in New York on 26 January with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and members of the Governing Council. They will discuss the possibility of the United Nations' return to Iraq to help in the transition process. The UN left Iraq last autumn after a bombing at their Baghdad headquarters killed more than 20, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
U.S. officials and members of the Governing Council hope the UN's participation could prove to be the element that convinces al-Sistani to consent to the American plan.
Iraqi interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says, "we welcome an effective and influential role for the United Nations. We call for the return of the UN to Iraq, and we will cooperate with the UN in all fields. The UN has an important role to play in the political process, elections and the constitutional process."
Senior UN officials downplay expectations, however, pointing at Iraq's security situation and the scope of the tasks the organization may be charged with in Iraq.
Neil Partrick is an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. He says the coalition authorities in Iraq need to treat al-Sistani and his followers with respect: "I think [al-Sistani] is the most significant Iraqi political player today. We certainly should not see him as a figure in any way comparable, for example, with Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, who led the revolution in Iran. And I don't think he wants to transition himself to that. He has a view of the role of Islam in the political process which is much more moderate and is much more open to the idea of different political trends being present. [Shi'a] politicians proper, if you like, do not have the kind of way that he has, even though some of the [Shi'a] leaders do have strong followings."
According to Partrick, the strong position taken by al-Sistani on the handover of authority in Iraq has changed the power distribution in the country. Al-Sistani, Partrick says, has suddenly become a significant political force in Iraq: "Previously, the demonstrations among the Shi'a communities [have] been over 'bread and butter' issues. Here, we have undoubtedly a blessing given [by al-Sistani] to significant political demonstrations on the coalition plans to the transfer of power. So I think that is a significant shift. Although it does not necessarily mean that this is going to be an inevitable confrontation [with the coalition], much less a violent one."