WASHINGTON—The Bush administration is deeply divided over how to defuse opposition to a U.S.-backed plan for restoring self-rule to Iraq and avert even deeper instability.
Publicly, the White House and the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, remain committed to turning over power on July 1 to an interim government selected by an interim assembly chosen through regional caucuses.
But privately, President Bush's national security aides are debating a number of U.S. and British fallback options, including acceding to a demand by Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, that the assembly be directly elected.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld favor a proposal to turn over power early—by April 1—to the Governing Council, a body of U.S.-installed Iraqi leaders, said senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The council would be expanded from its current 25 seats to include more Shiites. The aim would be to persuade Sistani to agree to delaying elections, they said.
"This proposal came up in September and Bremer shot it down," said one senior U.S. official. "It has come back to life."
Adnan Pachachi, who holds the council's rotating presidency, heavily promoted the idea during a visit to Washington earlier this month.
But the State Department, the National Security Council staff and the CIA oppose the idea, the officials said.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and senior U.S. diplomats prefer a "go slow" approach, said the second senior U.S. official.
They want to wait to hear from a United Nations fact-finding team that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to send to Iraq to determine whether conditions exist for free and credible elections, he said.
Their hope is that the team will confirm the Bush administration's contention that there's insufficient time to organize elections and persuade Sistani to drop his demand.
In case Sistani refuses to compromise, options presented by British and U.S. experts include holding elections for the interim assembly in some parts of the country or having national elections that wouldn't meet international standards, the second senior U.S. official said.
Another option would be to delay the turnover of self-rule until polls can be organized, a move that would be opposed by White House political aides who want Bush to be able to campaign for re-election on the successful restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on any of the options.
One reason for the opposition to the proposal favored by Cheney and the Pentagon, the second senior official said, is that it would keep in power Iraqis with little popular support, including Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite close to neoconservatives in the Pentagon and White House.
Chalabi, a former businessman who opposed Saddam Hussein for years from exile, has long been distrusted by the CIA and State Department. He won favor with neoconservatives with his pledges to seek peace with Israel and provide bases in the heart of the Muslim world to U.S. troops fighting the war on terrorism.
Many Iraqis regard Chalabi and other members of the Governing Council as American stooges. Many experts fear that turning power over to them could be as destabilizing as spurning Sistani's demand for elections.
In a statement read to thousands of worshippers at mosques on Friday, Sistani pronounced the Governing Council illegal, calling it "an un-elected body."
Should the United States proceed with its plan to restore self-rule, Sistani could trigger a Shiite uprising with a religious order declaring the interim government illegitimate.
The United States contends that there's insufficient time to undertake the enormous bureaucratic and logistical task of preparing and holding elections before July 1. One major problem is that there are no voter registration rolls.
Ensuring security would be a massive undertaking, especially amid a rotation of U.S. forces now getting under way that involves replacing tens of thousands of troops in Iraq with fresh soldiers from the United States.
There's also a concern that elections would favor majority Shiites—about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people—over minority Sunni Muslims and ethnic groups such as the Kurds, and bring to power leaders who favor an Iranian-style theocratic regime.
Cheney and Rumsfeld apparently believe that handing power to a larger Governing Council that included Shiites loyal to Sistani could placate Sistani while ensuring the continued influence of Chalabi and other secular, pro-American members.
Their influence could be decisive on the issue of U.S. military bases in Iraq.
U.S. officials are working out with Governing Council members the terms of an agreement that would provide for the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.
A third senior U.S. official said Cheney and Rumsfeld are concerned that elections could lead to the installation of an anti-U.S. interim government that could junk the accord.
The second senior official said he was "surprised" by Cheney's support for the idea because Cheney had been deeply upset by ties that Chalabi forged with senior clerics in Iran.
"Chalabi is back in Cheney's good graces," he said.
A sign of the support Chalabi still enjoys in the White House was evident in his presence as a guest of first lady Laura Bush at the State of the Union address last week.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.