WASHINGTON—L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, is returning to Washington to explore how to break a serious impasse that threatens to derail a plan for Iraqi self-rule and complicate President Bush's re-election strategy.
Bremer is scheduled to turn over power to an interim Iraqi government by July 1. But the most powerful cleric of the Shiite Muslim majority objects to Bremer's plan and is demanding direct elections. The cleric's opposition raises the danger that Iraq's largest community will decide the transition is illegitimate, and the country could be plunged into deeper turmoil just as the U.S. presidential campaign heats up after Labor Day.
Should that happen, Bush would be unable to campaign on claims that he'd overseen the successful restoration of Iraqi sovereignty and begun bringing home large numbers of American soldiers.
The Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al Sistani, has put the administration in a bind. If U.S. officials satisfy his demands for direct elections, they risk enraging the minority Sunni Muslims, who are the core of the anti-American guerrilla movement, and the minority Kurds, who are the United States' closest Iraqi allies. Both Sunnis and Kurds fear that the Shiites would sweep the polls and dominate the new government.
The Sunnis historically have ruled Iraq, but lost privileges after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds fear losing the autonomy they enjoy in a quasi-democratic enclave that was protected by American air power in the decade before the war.
Under the transition plan that the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council adopted Nov. 15, regional caucuses of tribal leaders, intellectuals and others are to be held around Iraq to choose delegates to a provisional assembly by May 31.
The assembly would elect the transitional national government, which would assume power from Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority on July 1.
Sistani, however, is demanding that the assembly be chosen in direct elections, something that both the Bush administration and Annan say can't be organized in time.
Senior U.S. officials hope they can overcome Sistani's objections by giving a major role in the transition process to the United Nations, a reversal of the Bush administration's earlier strategy of minimizing U.N. involvement.
A greater U.N. role, they believe, would assuage Sistani's concerns about the authenticity of the selection process and confer greater international legitimacy on the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.
But the precise role the United Nations would play remains uncertain.
The Bush administration is unwilling to surrender control of Iraq's political transition to the United Nations. And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion, is unwilling to become a rubber stamp for the Bush administration.
Moreover, Annan remains deeply concerned about security. He pulled U.N. staff out of Baghdad in October after guerrilla attacks on aid organizations and the bombing Aug. 19 of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people, including the head of the mission.
Annan is to discuss a possible U.N. role in the political transition in New York on Monday with Bremer, some of the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council, which has control over some government functions, and Bush administration officials.
Bremer was to consult with White House advisers and other senior U.S. officials beginning Friday.
Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, on Thursday discussed the problems facing the transition process at the White House with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, a U.S. official said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the meeting broke up without deciding on any specific steps.
The trio essentially agreed that "the situation doesn't look good, but let's see what Jerry has to say," the official said, using Bremer's nickname.
Bremer has pledged to make the selection and conduct of the regional caucuses as transparent as possible, but has refused to meet with Sistani.
On Thursday, thousands of Shiites took to the streets of the southern city of Basra in support of Sistani.
One of the cleric's senior aides warned that if there are no direct elections, Sistani could issue a religious order prohibiting Shiites from recognizing the legitimacy of the interim government.
Some experts have suggested that one option would be to delay the July 1 deadline, so that assembly elections could be organized.
The U.S. official said such an option wasn't currently under consideration. A delay could mean the matter isn't settled when the American presidential election campaign hits full stride.
"No one is talking about (delaying) the June 30 deadline," he said. "The only person who can put that on the table is Jerry. I think only 60 days is the maximum he could extend this, and that would be at his peril."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paul Bremer