Los Angeles Times - latimes.com
June 2, 2003


U.S. Increases Role in Picking Iraqi Leaders
* Plans for a national conference are scrapped. Instead, the coalition will assemble a council to work quickly toward an interim government.

By John Daniszewski, Tyler Marshall and Michael Slackman, Times Staff Writers


In a major shift, U.S.-led occupation authorities Sunday abandoned the idea of letting a national conference of Iraqis select an interim government, instead opting for a plan that gives the United States a more direct role in choosing the country's leaders.

Under the plan outlined by a senior coalition official, coalition authorities would quickly appoint 25 to 30 "representative" Iraqis to a political council that would nominate Iraqis to serve in senior positions in ministries, although initially not as ministers themselves. The plan envisions an interim government being in place by mid-July.

At first glance, the new plan would have the advantages of putting together an interim administration quickly at a time when occupation forces see signs of growing impatience on the streets--including another armed attack on U.S. troops in this capital Sunday.

"We want to move as quickly as possible," said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

But it risks undermining confidence in the interim administration if Iraqis see it as handpicked by the Americans and the British, rather than being selected by Iraqis in what was planned to be a conference of about 300 Iraqis from various political parties and groups.

Seeking to avoid any impression that the new council would be merely an instrument of the United States and its allies, the coalition official stressed that its members would be named only after intensive consultations and exchanges with a broad range of Iraqis.

The official also said that parallel to the work of the council, a convention would be organized to work out a national constitution. Once it is approved in a national referendum, elections could be held and a permanent democratic government could be formed. The official declined to speculate on how long that would take.

Under the previous plan, the U.S. authorities would have invited about 300 representatives from post-Hussein political groups, exiled parties, tribal leaders and other influential figures in the country to select the interim government and prepare a new constitution that would pave the way for free national elections in one to two years.

The big losers in the new plan could be the former exile groups, including the umbrella Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord, and the main Kurdish and Shiite factions, which had hoped to use their early lead in political organization to dominate the proposed national conference and elect an interim government to their liking. A moderate Islamic party and one promoting a constitutional monarchy are also part of the seven-member "leadership council."

The new plan follows weeks of tension between these groups--eager to assume power, but with little grass-roots support--and occupation authorities struggling to broaden the representation and thus increase the body's legitimacy.

Only a month ago, these groups had expected to form the core of an interim government that the U.S. and Iraqis hoped would be in place by the end of May. But the new plan was unveiled to them at a meeting Sunday with L. Paul Bremer III, who heads the coalition authority.

The former exiles have seen their hopes to assume control steadily diminish as U.S. officials seem unconvinced of the groups' ability to cope with the myriad problems in the country.

The official said that the U.S.-led coalition wants to bring into the process more Iraqis who were not part of the opposition abroad but who stayed inside Iraq and suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime.

The official briefed reporters inside the Republican Palace that is the headquarters here for the coalition authority, as military aides sat in one of Hussein's ornate reception halls watching the miniseries "Band of Brothers," which tells how members of the 101st Airborne helped to liberate Europe during World War II.

The official said the new council "needs to look like the Iraqi people" in terms of ethnicity, religion and gender, but that there would be "no quotas."

Besides nominating people for the ministries and overseeing their work, the council would set broad government policies and lay the ground rules for the constitutional convention, he said.

The official denied that the spate of recent attacks on U.S. troops had anything to do with the new plan to "broaden and accelerate" the formation of an interim government but said the country's many problems made speeding up the process unavoidable.

"We are motivated by a real sense of urgency. A lot of things are happening. The train is leaving the station," he said.

A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, Entifahd Qanbar, seemed distressed by the decision not to hold the national conference and said his group might go ahead and call one anyway. "I don't know what is going to happen, but the best way to solve Iraqis' problems is to have an interim Iraqi government that is selected by the Iraqi people. Anything that is not in line with that will not be as effective," he said.

But a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the main Kurdish factions, said he was satisfied with the U.S. proposal.

Although there have been hopeful signs in recent days that coalition forces are finally getting control of the chaos in Iraq--including restoring electricity, collecting garbage and embarking on disarmament of the population and food-ration distribution-- attacks on U.S. troops have taken place nearly every day during the past week, especially in the Sunni Muslim belt stretching north and west from Baghdad.

Sunday's attack came on a group of U.S. soldiers on guard duty outside the main Sunni mosque in northwestern Baghdad. They were hit with explosives and small-arms fire, soldiers and Iraqi civilians said. Residents who witnessed the incident claimed that two Iraqis and one American were killed and one Iraqi and three Americans wounded. An American soldier on the scene, however, said only one American was wounded and one Iraqi died.

U.S. military officers describe the recent series of guerrilla-style ambushes as a rear-guard action by remnants of Hussein's regime.

Sunday's incident occurred in the Adhamiya district, a staunchly Sunni stronghold historically sympathetic to Hussein and the pan-Arab ideology of his Baathist Party. Residents said it followed several days of complaints about the U.S. military's decision to set up an armed observation post just outside the Al Imam al Adham mosque, one of the city's holiest sites.

The accounts of witnesses interviewed about two hours after the attack suggested that it was a coordinated assault, with two men on a motorcycle first tossing what appeared to be a satchel of explosives at a U.S. armored personnel carrier sitting on the edge of a large square near the main mosque entrance. A short time later, snipers fired on the soldiers from the roof of a building at the opposite side of the square, about 100 yards away.

Locals who rushed to the scene after hearing the explosion said they saw two Americans on the ground, while a third, who was standing nearby, also appeared to be wounded. They said additional troops arrived about 20 minutes after the explosion and began firing.

The residents also claimed that the American wounded were immediately evacuated, but that the Iraqi casualties were left to fend for themselves.

"One lay for 30 minutes calling for help, shouting for help, but we couldn't cross the street because we were afraid of the Americans," said laborer Jamal Najim, who lives near the square.

Despite the violence, however, another step was taken toward normality: The country's old, yet highly efficient food distribution program kicked back into gear Sunday when agents brought rations of flour, rice and sugar to thousands of small distributors, such as food stores. Under the existing system, food provided by the World Food Program will go to everybody in the country.

After more than a decade of crippling economic sanctions, up to 80% of the country's population is believed to depend on the food rations for survival.

"It's been very smooth so far," said an official with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

Meanwhile, the collection of weapons from the population at the start of a two-week gun amnesty was negligible Sunday, according to visits by journalists to the police stations where all guns larger than 7.62-millimeter Kalashnikovs were to be turned in.

No one was seen relinquishing weapons.

Original URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/complete/la-fg-iraq2jun02000423,1,4907255.story?coll=la-iraq-complete

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