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Iraq: Unrest Sparks New Debate Over U.S. Strategy

As coalition forces seek to crack down on new waves of violent resistance to the U.S.-led authority in Iraq, the unrest is having political repercussions around the globe. In the United States, it has sparked new debate over whether Washington can turn over power to a sovereign Iraqi government by 30 June. And in Europe, Madrid is hardening its demands for the United Nations to take charge in Iraq if Spanish troops are to remain beyond this summer.

Prague, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Events in Iraq are highlighting the continuing instability there and sparking a sharp new debate over whether Washington's strategy is adequate to cope with the problems.

Currently, the U.S.-led authority faces challenges on two fronts.

One is continuing hostility from Saddam Hussein loyalists and other anti-U.S. parties in the so-called Sunni Triangle -- particularly in the flashpoint city of Al-Fallujah. U.S. forces today are reported to have sealed roads around Al-Fallujah as Washington weighs its response to the killing and mob mutilation of four U.S. security contractors there last week.

The second is violence in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and several other cities as armed followers of Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have attacked coalition forces in the wake of the arrest of one of his top deputies over the weekend. At least 50 people have been killed in the clashes and more violence looks certain as Washington now vows to arrest al-Sadr himself.

He said that Madrid will seek to lead a debate in the UN on expanding the world body's role and that his government "will not accept cosmetic changes" as its price for continuing to cooperate with Washington.
In the United States, the spiraling unrest has caused two top legislators this week to warn that Iraq could lapse into civil strife unless U.S. President George W. Bush produces a comprehensive plan for dealing with its religious and ethnic rivalries.

Senator Richard Lugar, of Bush's own Republican Party, told a weekend U.S. television news show that "I would have thought there would be a more comprehensive plan.... The fact is that we don't know what we are going to do" in Iraq.

Senator Joseph Biden, of the opposition Democratic Party, told another news show that "something's got to happen between now and then [the 30 June turnover date or] else we're going to end up with a civil war there."

Bush has rejected such criticism, saying that Washington plans to go ahead with the transfer of authority as scheduled. He said yesterday: "The intention is to make sure the deadline remains the same. I believe we can transfer authority by 30 June. We're working toward that day."

A key concern for Bush's critics is whether the interim Iraqi sovereign government that takes power this summer will be able to create greater stability. The U.S. administration has said it will keep U.S. troops in the country to maintain security but that the formation of the sovereign government will ease much of the tension.

To prepare for the sovereign government, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has passed the Transitional Administrative Law -- or interim constitution -- which guarantees civil liberties and recognizes federalism as Iraq's future system of government.

But the country's top Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has objected to the constitution as giving too much power to the Iraqi Kurds, and several divisive issues have been left for the writing of the permanent constitution next year. At the same time, it has yet to be decided how the interim sovereign government -- which is to lead the country to general elections -- will be chosen.

As the unrest has grown over the past days, several European governments have renewed calls for the United States to give the UN the lead role in planning the country's political transition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put Moscow's position this way yesterday: "As to the question of what needs to be done in Iraq, I will reply firmly and unambiguously that it is necessary to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people as soon as possible and ensure the United Nations' central role in finalizing the political settlement process."

Spain's incoming foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, repeated his government's warning that it will withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq if the UN does not take charge there by 30 June. He said that Madrid will seek to lead a debate in the UN on expanding the world body's role and that his government "will not accept cosmetic changes" as its price for continuing to cooperate with Washington.

The top Spanish diplomat also said that foreign troops in Iraq must have a mandate that assures they are not seen as occupation forces. He said, "It does not matter whether they wear blue [UN] helmets --what is important is that they are seen as forces of liberation instead of occupation."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the world body wants to see a representative sovereign government in place in Baghdad that can take responsibility for the country's political destiny. "We will do our best to ensure that an Iraqi government that represents the Iraqi people and is in charge of its own affairs, of its political and economic destiny, is installed, and that is what the Security Council wants," he said. "In the meantime, I would want to appeal to all in Iraq to cooperate with each other and to desist from violence, as it's taking innocent civilian lives."

Annan's senior adviser for Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Baghdad on 4 April to advise Iraqis on forming the interim sovereign government. It is not clear, however, whether Washington -- which has welcomed the mission -- will give Brahimi the lead role in resolving disputes. Ultimate political power in Iraq is now held by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

Meanwhile, one of Baghdad's regional neighbors, Qatar, has also expressed growing unease over the new violence in Iraq. Qatari Foreign Minister Shaykh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said yesterday that "the developments in Iraq in the last few days are alarming."

He said that Qatar -- which hosted the U.S. command center for the war last year -- is "worried about the cluster of resistance and terrorist organizations in Iraq, which has become a fertile ground for these people to implement their extremist ideology."

U.S. officials say that in the wake of the latest violence they are looking at the option of dispatching more U.S. troops to Iraq. But a senior official of the U.S. Central Command -- which has responsibility for the region -- told Reuters privately that for now, the Pentagon believes that the 120,000-plus U.S. and coalition troops in the country are enough.