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Iraq: Growing U.S. Unhappiness With Governing Council Suggests Changes Ahead

  • Charles Recknagel

Reports are increasing that Washington is unhappy with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which is having difficulties meeting a timetable for developing a constitution and paving the way to national elections. Now, as top U.S. officials meet in Washington with America's administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, major changes in the structure of the country's interim government could be imminent.

Prague, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, returned suddenly to Washington yesterday for high-level meetings concerning the political and security situation in Iraq.

Major American dailies quote U.S. officials as saying privately that the meetings are looking at ways to accelerate the handover of power to Iraqis as one way to hasten the return of stability to the country. The meetings are reported to include, among others, the U.S. vice president, the national security adviser, the secretaries of defense and state, and -- at times -- U.S. President George W. Bush.

"The Washington Post" reports that one model being discussed for Iraq's political transition approximates that used in Afghanistan. The newspaper says that model is "to hold some form of elections in Iraq, possibly in four to six months, to select a new body that would write a constitution, and an executive to assume sovereign powers in Baghdad."

With details vague and other options also reported to be under discussion, it is too early to speculate about exactly what new strategies toward Iraq the Washington meeting may adopt. But the high-level nature of the talks, and the troubled relationship between Washington and the Iraqi Governing Council, suggest any changes will be substantive and not cosmetic.

The meetings come after weeks of signs that Washington is increasingly unhappy with the U.S.-appointed council's inability to rapidly pave the way for the country to become a democracy.

Tensions reached a high point last weekend as Iraq's interim foreign minister, Hoshyar Zubari, said that due to Iraq's difficult security situation, the council might not be able to meet a key UN-imposed deadline next month. The council is to provide the UN by 15 December with a timetable and a program for drafting a new constitution and holding democratic elections.

Fuad Ma'asoum, chairman of the council-appointed Iraqi Constitutional Preparatory Committee, told RFE/RL's Iraqi Service on 9 November that work on the constitution cannot be rushed if the document is to fully engage Iraqis in a new post-Hussein order: "The constitution is not only for one generation. It is for the next generations, as well. Therefore, we can't ignore it or delay it. But at the same time, we can't hurry with it. We should work actively."

But any suggestion the Governing Council might miss its UN deadline doesn't sit well with Washington. The U.S. administration sponsored the UN resolution last month that set the 15 December deadline. It was part of Washington's plans for obtaining greater international participation in Iraq's reconstruction and reducing the financial burden on America.

The Iraqi Governing Council's suggestion that it might not meet its deadline due to the deteriorating security situation also highlights tensions with Washington over another subject -- the council's continuing demands it be given powers like those of a provisional government. The council has said that doing so would improve the security situation and thus speed the council's own work by encouraging more Iraqis to fight forces trying to disrupt the country.

Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Iraqi Governing council, told RFE/RL's Iraqi Service last weekend that if the council is disappointing U.S. officials, much of the blame lies with the Americans themselves for giving it too little authority: "In my opinion, any failure can be blamed on the American side. But, as I have always said, we in the council must work very seriously, in accordance with our authority, so we can make progress. Because if we fail, the other side can blame it on the council."

The council's frequent requests for more powers have appeared to get little hearing from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which retains the ultimate political authority in the country. Press reports quote U.S. officials as saying privately that the council is hobbled by infighting, particularly over the role of Islam in the new Iraq and over how to hold elections when a one-man, one-vote system would clearly favor the majority Shi'a community.

Council members are also said to be frequently absent from meetings as many seek to protect or build their own local power bases.

However, if U.S. officials have problems with the council's divisions, they also have been surprised by some of the decisions the unelected group has taken when it does unite.

Washington's plan to bring in Turkey as the first Muslim country helping with peacekeeping in Iraq were squelched by the council's opposition to the plan. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed Washington's reaction this way to Turkey's announcement last week that it would not send soldiers due to the council's position.

"Obviously, we would have preferred if this had all worked out very nicely to everybody's satisfaction," he said. "But let's remember that the goal is stability in Iraq, and that there is recognition on all our parts -- the United States side, Turkish, as well as the Iraqis -- that maybe this deployment at this time would not add to that goal in the way that we had hoped it would."

At the same time, the council has had serious differences with the CPA over the pace of the planned privatization of many elements of Iraq's non-oil economy. And Washington has been unpleasantly surprised by the council's reported interest in buying electricity from Syria and Iran to ease Iraqi power shortages.

While Washington now appears to increasingly believe its political strategy for Iraq needs to be modified if things are to work more smoothly, no U.S. officials are saying the CPA intends to abandon the Governing Council entirely. But some are suggesting that accelerating the country's transition to a democracy might broaden political representation in Iraq and help ease some of the problems.

Reuters recently quoted one U.S. official in Baghdad as saying privately that the focus now "is on getting the Iraqis to take over more and more steadily according to the plan in UN Security Council Resolution 1511." He added: "You can't do that by a radical change in course, [but] that's not to say there shouldn't be mid-course corrections."

UN Security Council Resolution 1511, unanimously passed last month, recognizes the Governing Council as embodying Iraq's sovereignty during the transitional period and confirms Washington will turn over full power to Iraqis "as soon as practicable."
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