The leaders of Britain, Germany, and France are set to meet in Berlin this weekend in a bid to bridge differences with Washington over Iraq's future. France and Germany are demanding a swift restoration of political authority to Iraqis. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, Washington sees a slow, complex process that could take up to two years.
Washington, 17 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Restoring sovereignty to Iraq is a complex process that can't be rushed if Baghdad is to become the first democracy in the Arab world.
That's the gist of the U.S. stance on Iraq's future. But as Washington seeks to win UN Security Council support for the American-led reconstruction of Iraq, Germany and France are demanding a faster return of full Iraqi sovereignty.
At first glance, the parties seem as split now as they were before the war, which was bitterly opposed by Germany and France.
Paris says a provisional Iraqi government should be in place within a month. But Washington sees a longer process of institution-building that could take up to two years.
Michele Flournoy is a former senior Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research organization.
"The Bush administration has proposed a plan by which the Iraqis, particularly the Governing Council, would define their own timetable for political transition," she said. "And that would involve key milestones, like the drafting of a constitution, the establishment of an interim government, and then eventually the holding of elections that would formally transfer power to an elected government."
But just how would the return of Iraqi sovereignty work? What steps will need to be taken for Iraqis to take over the reins of their own democratic government? And how long will it really take?
Those questions are likely to come up on 20 September when the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany meet in Berlin in a bid to put their differences on the war behind them and agree on a common plan for Iraq's future. Britain was a key U.S. ally in the war against Iraq.
They are also questions in which David Phillips is well-versed. Until last September, David Phillips was an expert on the Middle East for the U.S. State Department. Now with the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, Phillips -- in an interview with RFE/RL -- tried to outline the process by which Washington hopes to leave Baghdad in democratic hands.
"It's going to take time," he said. "I think that one year is optimistic. What's important is to be judicious, take steps deliberately, but to move at as fast a clip as possible."
The first step is drafting and adopting a new constitution. Phillips says the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has established a subcommittee that is due to issue a report in the coming days with its recommended steps for drafting and adopting a constitution.
Phillips expects that process will be overseen by a constitutional committee that will make its draft open to debate and input from local leaders and city councils across Iraq.
"It's important that that process be legitimate, and in order to make it legitimate you have to involve local leaders in the selection of the constitutional commission," Phillips said. "You've already seen some clerics talk about the need for an elected constitutional commission. I imagine what you'll end up with is a hybrid that will include persons appointed by the [Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA], as recommended by the Governing Council, and in consultation with local leaders around the country."
After a nationwide debate, modification, and improvements, the constitution would then likely be ratified in a convention involving the Governing Council, as well as local leaders and city councils.
Phillips says this process will be carried out under the auspices of either the U.S.-led CPA or the United Nations, if a new resolution should so direct it.
Flournoy believes Washington understands the need to let the political transition process be guided by Iraqis themselves, and that the U.S. has no fixed models for a constitution or an exact form of government. But she adds that Washington certainly knows what it doesn't want.
"They don't want a system that enables radical elements to come to power," she said. "They don't want a system that does not guarantee the rights of minorities. They don't want necessarily a religious state. They want a secular state. So I think they have clear ideas of what would be a bad outcome. And they probably have some ideas of key principles, as I said -- protection of minority rights, free and fair elections, and so forth."
Both Flournoy and Phillips say they believe the political transition process should rely heavily on the international community and the United Nations, which they say has particular expertise in rebuilding states.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan underscored that possible role in comments on 15 September to reporters in New York.
"We have had very good experience in facilitating political processes, helping countries that have been in difficulties to re-establish democratically elected governments, helping them draft a constitution -- a whole range of activities that we have had experience in and that we would be able to do, but we are not going to go in and run Iraq," he said.
However, Phillips cautions that much of Iraq's political transition will depend on the security situation. If it continues to be critical, that could seriously hurt the chances of smoothly establishing a democratic Iraq. Frequent attacks against U.S. forces have killed 73 soldiers since 1 May.
Phillips sees the whole transition to self-government taking up to two years but says it could be done in less than one year in the best-case scenario:
"Everybody wants that process to happen as soon as possible. What's important is that credible Iraqis are involved. If you're going to hand over authority, you have to hand it over to someone. That means that you need to involve Iraqis at every stage, [to] build consensus as a building block for the coalitions that Iraq is going to need in the future. That whole process of drafting, debating, ratifying, and then voting is at least a 9- to 12-month deal."
U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to seek concessions on the time frame for Iraq's return to sovereignty when he meets with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week, their first direct talks in more than a year.
And Bush is likely to work the issue later in the week when he hosts President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which, like France, is a veto-wielding member of the Security Council.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated on 16 September that Paris wants fast international recognition of Iraqi sovereignty. But in a sign that compromise may be possible, the French spokesman acknowledged it could take more time before a full handover of power from U.S. forces occurs.