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Iraq: U.S. Says Nation-Building Conference Postponed Until July

Recent changes in U.S. plans for the future administration of Iraq have sparked resentment among the country's political groups. Members of the so-called "leadership council" have accused the Americans and their British allies of reversing their previous policy and postponing the handover of power to an Iraqi interim authority. As RFE/RL reports, such concerns may be falling on a deaf ear in Washington, which today announced a possible new delay in Iraq's nation-building process.

Prague, 21 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's U.S. civilian administrator said today a national conference expected to choose a new interim authority for the country will probably not be held until July.

Speaking to reporters during a tour of a newly reopened prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer indicated the meeting will not take place any time soon -- contrary to the expectations of Iraqi political leaders he met with last week.

"We will have another, broader meeting some time in the next week or 10 days and then we will see where we go from there. But I would think we are talking about more like sometime in July to get a national conference put together," Bremer said.

Bremer's remarks are likely to fuel mounting Iraqi criticism of the United States and its ally Britain.

A number of Iraqi political groups have already accused Washington of reneging on earlier promises to support the rapid creation of an interim government to succeed Saddam Hussein's regime.

On 5 May, Bremer's predecessor, retired U.S. Army General Jay Garner, said "the beginning of a nucleus of a temporary Iraqi government" would be set up by mid-May.

A few days earlier on 28 April, around 250 delegates representing the entire political spectrum of Iraq had met in Baghdad under the auspices of Garner and U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The participants and hosts agreed to hold a national conference by the end of May to elect the first post-Hussein Iraqi government.

Although Bremer's latest remarks clearly indicate the United States has decided to bide its time, U.S. officials insist that Washington has not committed itself to any timetable on an Iraqi interim authority.

In comments made over the past two days to foreign media, unidentified officials with Bremer's Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid (ORHA), have insisted it would be irrelevant to talk about a delay in the formation of the new body since the U.S. has never committed itself to a deadline.

Bremer unexpectedly took the helm of Iraq's reconstruction on 12 May, replacing Garner, who had been in office for less than a month. Washington has given no official explanation for Garner's removal, but reports have generally linked the decision to his failure to cope with widespread lawlessness in Iraq.

Other reports suggest Garner -- who will remain temporarily in Baghdad to assist Bremer -- might have been sidelined for having led Iraqis to believe that a transitional government with wide-ranging powers would be put into place quickly.

Meeting in Baghdad on 16 May with representatives of Iraqi exile opposition parties, Bremer reportedly backed off from Garner's earlier claims that the parties would form the core of the future Iraqi interim authority. Bremer also made it clear his office could hold onto power longer than previously suggested.

In comments made to reporters today, the U.S. administrator sounded dismissive of political parties represented in the leadership council. Describing the body as "not representative of the Iraqi people," Bremer confirmed earlier reports that his office would like to expand the council to include other groups.

"There is some work to be done by us and by other Iraqis to identify a truly representative group. That's the process we are in now. We're moving as quickly as we can and I think we'll be able to move forward on that in the weeks ahead," Bremer said.

The leadership council includes Masood Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- the two groups that have been controlling northern Iraq's Kurdish provinces since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Representatives of the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Shi'a Muslim Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) also have seats in the leadership council.

Some of these groups have recently voiced concern over the mandate of the future interim authority.

Britain's "Financial Times" daily yesterday quoted KDP spokesman Hoshyar Zebari as lambasting the United States for planning to deny the interim authority any administrative powers. Zebari warned the KDP will withdraw from the political process if Washington proceeds with plans for a toothless Iraqi authority.

SCIRI leaders have expressed similar concerns. Al-Dawa (Islamic Call), another Shi'a group, has threatened to form its own interim national council if plans for a legitimate Iraqi-led government fail.

There are several explanations -- some contradictory -- for why the U.S.-led coalition decided to retain power in Iraq.

David Manning, a foreign-policy adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been quoted as saying the decision stems from joint U.S.-British plans to have international sanctions on Iraq lifted as soon as possible.

Talking to leadership council representatives in Baghdad on 19 May, Manning reportedly told them the United Nations Security Council would probably not agree to lift sanctions unless there is a strong administration to run the country, and that an interim Iraqi authority was deemed insufficient for that task.

But some ORHA officials have hinted at other motives for the change in the U.S. attitude, saying the leadership council includes "self-appointed oligarchs" who should not be allowed to assume power.

These officials maintain that the interim administration will not represent a true government, and therefore insist on calling it an "authority." They also say the transitional body will be tasked with helping draw up a new constitution and reforming Iraq's repressive legal code. The day-to-day running of the country and control over ministries will remain under the direct administration of the U.S.-led coalition until elections are held to select a new leadership.

Iraq's British civilian administrator John Sawers today told Agence France Presse he did not expect elections to take place for another one to two years.

The United States and Britain have introduced a draft UN Security Council resolution legalizing the presence of coalition forces in Iraq until a representative government recognized by the international community is established in Baghdad. Washington has rejected a French proposal that the mandate of the occupation forces be limited to 12 months with any extension requiring the approval of the Security Council.

John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, today said he expects the 15-member Security Council to vote on the U.S.-British draft resolution tomorrow.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, leadership council leaders have threatened to formally protest coalition plans to declare an occupation authority in Iraq lest it evolve into an open-ended mandate to rule the country indefinitely.