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Iraq: Bremer Highlights Economic Issues As Power-Sharing Postponed

The U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, is shifting his attention to the Iraqi economy after reportedly putting off any immediate plans to share political power with some form of Iraqi administration. The shift highlights uncertainties as to how much power Washington plans to share with Iraqi leaders, and when.

Prague, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, Paul Bremer, is saying that reviving the economy is his top priority as Washington postpones earlier plans to immediately begin limited power-sharing with Iraqi leaders.

Bremer told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad yesterday that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which he heads, is developing initiatives to create jobs and get Iraqis back to work.

"I pledge that the coalition will do everything we can to encourage and support employment, creating economic activity. That is my prime concern now. My economic team and I are working hard on a number of initiatives which will help get the economy going and provide much-needed jobs," Bremer said.

Bremer said one initiative is to launch a $70 million nationwide program in the next two weeks to clean up neighborhoods and build community projects.

He also said the Provisional Authority would begin recruiting for a new Iraqi Army by the end of the month.

These measures come after Bremer last month dissolved Iraq's armed forces, several security bodies, and the Defense and Information ministries, firing some 400,000 people. The steps were meant to assure ordinary Iraqis that the regime of former President Saddam Hussein has been dismantled and former Ba'ath officials are being ousted from positions of authority.

The dismissals have resulted in some protests, with more than 3,000 disbanded soldiers marching on the Authority's headquarters in Baghdad yesterday. The former soldiers said they could no longer feed their families and demanded compensation.

While promising new jobs programs, Bremer also warned it will take time to turn Iraq's economy around. He said factories are burdened by outdated technology, which makes immediate increases in activity difficult.

"It is hard to overstate the chronic underinvestment in Iraq's infrastructure over the past 30 years," he said. "In almost every sector we look at, from oil to electricity to water to sewage, we are finding technology and machinery that dates back to the 1960s and, in some cases, to the 1950s."

Bremer's calling the economy his top priority may mark a shift in focus for U.S. officials, who until now often have appeared preoccupied with Iraq's political issues. Uppermost among those issues has been the question of when the Provisional Authority might begin some form of power-sharing with Iraqi leaders and how those leaders might be chosen.

The power-sharing issue was reportedly put on hold this weekend as a top U.S. State Department official told representatives of seven major Iraqi political groups that an Iraqi leadership council to work with the coalition will not be formed until some six weeks from now.

"The Washington Post" reported that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker also told the seven parties -- mostly former exile groups and the two main Iraqi-Kurdish factions -- that U.S. officials have decided to select the members of any Iraqi leadership council rather than convene a large national conference to choose them.

The reported U.S. decisions come after weeks of disagreements between U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders over how and when to share power. As recently as late May, Bremer had announced that a national conference was planned and would likely be held next month. That date was already a month later than a previous timeframe for forming the "nucleus of an Iraqi government" originally announced by Bremer's predecessor, General Jay Garner.

Washington has given no reasons for its change in plans. But some U.S. officials in Iraq have said privately that Iraq is not yet ready for self-government. "The Washington Post" reported late last month that "Bremer and his advisors had concluded after weeks of little progress on restoring security or creating a new political framework that Iraqis wanted the United States to exert a heavier hand, at least for now."

Iraqi political groups are criticizing Washington's intention to select the members of any leadership council. Spokesmen for the Kurdistan Democratic Party and for the Shi'ite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said yesterday the seven major political parties still want a national conference to choose who will advise the occupation authorities.

U.S. officials have yet to describe publicly just what powers they might share with any Iraqi advisory body. The news agency AFP reports a senior U.S. official in Baghdad as saying privately that the leadership council would consist of 25 to 30 members who would advise the Coalition Provisional Authority on economic and policy issues and name key advisers to Iraq's ministries. Those advisers would work in close coordination with the coalition's own overseers of the ministries.

AFP quotes the U.S. official as saying, "this council will emerge as the face of the Iraqi people in its interactions with the Coalition Provisional Authority." But he stressed that the council will not be a "sovereign government." He said that "ultimate authority" will remain with the occupation powers until power can be handed over to a democratically elected government at some unspecified time in the future.

The agency notes that the Provisional Authority relies on unnamed spokesmen to leak details of its plans for postwar Iraq to the media but rarely speaks about them publicly, perhaps to keep all options open.

Some analysts say U.S. officials see American control of Iraq's reconstruction as the surest way to create a functioning state in Iraq that clearly breaks with its Hussein-era past and has democratic institutions.

Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., describes that view by saying, "The whole world is watching to see -- can the United States build a democracy in Iraq? It is very important for everybody to realize that first there needs to be a state in Iraq and a state in which there is security for citizens."

He continues: "Iraq needs to move ahead and, given that there is no government, the Americans are going to be making decisions about their oil policy, decisions about the reconstruction of their ministries, decisions about their financial policies. So we are talking about a real American administration of Iraq for probably at least a year [and] potentially longer."

Bremer confirmed in his remarks yesterday that any timeline for turning full power over to Iraqi leaders has yet to be set.

He said, "you cannot have a new government until you have elections and the beginning of responsible government here. I am not going to set any artificial datelines -- it is too important."

(NCA intern Sterling Wright in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)