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Iraq: How Will Washington 'Accelerate' Transfer Of Power To Iraqis?

The buzzword on Iraq in Washington this week seems to be "accelerate" -- as in accelerating the transfer of power to the Iraqi people. How the U.S.-led coalition will go about doing that remains unclear, but setting up a provisional Iraqi government appears to be a first step.

Washington, 14 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are planning big changes in Iraq, even if they're not exactly saying so.

Amid a surge in violence and reports that Washington is losing the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, the Bush administration has signaled that it's shifting tactics on the country's reconstruction by speeding up the transfer of authority to Iraqis.

Previously, Washington had insisted that a constitution be written before elections could be held. That process would take two or more years.

But recent events, including a suicide bombing that killed at least 18 Italians and nine Iraqis in Al-Nasiriyah this week, suggest that Washington may not have that much time to wait before handing over power.

After meeting yesterday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington: "We're all interested in accelerating the process of putting in place a government for the people of Iraq reflecting the will of the Iraqi people and representing all the people of Iraq. And it has been our mutual goal -- of the United Kingdom and the United States and all of our coalition partners -- to do this as fast as we can."

Reflecting a new urgency, U.S. President George W. Bush also said yesterday that authority should be transferred faster to the Iraqi people.

But Bush declined to confirm reports that following talks this week in Washington with the U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, he has decided to abandon his previous plan for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to retain power until a constitution is drafted, adopted, elections held and a representative government chosen.

But standing next to Straw at the State Department, Powell acknowledged that the previous American plan would just take too long.

"There has been concern expressed that the time required to write a constitution, if you are going to go through an election process to determine who should be on that constitutional writing commission, could eat up a great deal of time -- more time than we think can be allowed before we start transferring sovereignty back. And so we are trying to work through those concerns and see if there's a way to work through them or to find alternatives that would speed up the process," Powell said.

Bremer's sudden trip back to Washington this week, and the shift in tack by the administration, came shortly after a CIA report was leaked to the U.S. media. That report concludes the United States is quickly losing the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. The report was given extensive coverage.

In an interview with RFE/RL, one observer, Middle East expert and former U.S. diplomat David Phillips, quipped: "It's rather remarkable that a report has to be released to the press in order to get the White House's attention."

Phillips, who is with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, says that although U.S. officials aren't yet going on record as saying so, the first step Washington is likely to take in Iraq is to turn over power to a provisional government.

That government would begin the work of restoring Iraqi governance while overseeing the writing and adopting of a constitution, as the provisional administration of President Hamid Karzai has done in Afghanistan. Phillips says elections could take place after a process lasting up to two years, as in the original U.S. plan.

It's just that the new plan would restore Iraqi sovereignty from the start, a position long held by France, the chief international critic of the war. Yesterday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said France is ready to help with reconstruction once power is handed over to a provisional Iraqi government. France wants that to happen by the end of the year, not by next summer, as some U.S. administration officials are now hinting.

If there is irony in this, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, doesn't see it. Briefing reporters yesterday at the White House, she said "nothing has changed" in the U.S. approach.

"Nobody has ever tried to be locked in stone about the forms by which, or the mechanisms by which, we would try to transfer more authority [to Iraqis]. It is still important that the Iraqi people have a permanent constitution. It's still important that they have elections for a permanent government. Nothing has changed. But what is also important is that we find ways to accelerate the transfer of authority to the Iraqi people," Rice said.

U.S. officials have so far offered no details on how power will be transferred to a provisional Iraqi government. But Phillips, who says he's spoken a lot about this issue with Iraqis, has his own ideas about what should be done.

"It's important that everybody feel represented. And I've long advocated that the way that you do that is by emphasizing local government -- by developing a federal system with maximum power-sharing that allows the regions and local leaders to control levers of governance at the community and at the provincial level," Phillips said.

Phillips says the coalition could get the process started by having the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council promulgate a basic law that enshrines constitutional principles. He believes the provisional government could include the Governing Council and ministers that have already been appointed.

Then, Phillips would like to see Iraq's 18 provinces send delegates to establish an interim assembly. He says the process of going to political and tribal leaders and asking them to assign representatives to the assembly could be accomplished in two or three months.

Once that interim assembly is established, Phillips says it can designate a constitutional commission that can begin a drafting process that would take six months. Another six months of town meetings and consultations would make sure that the Iraqi people feel ownership in the outcome.

In the end, Phillips says that once the constitution is ratified and national elections held, the United States can -- in his words -- "claim some kind of victory." But he cautions that if Iraqis don't truly feel part of the process, they will end up resenting the coalition, as well as each other.

"If that's the case, you run the risk of Iraq imploding -- the worst-case scenario actually being the result, which is widespread ethnic and religious violence, the country's fragmentation, and Iraq's neighbors like Turkey adventuring across the border to assert their interests," Phillips said.