WASHINGTON—President Bush, his top national security advisers and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, on Wednesday urgently discussed how to hasten Iraq's transition from occupation to a civilian government.
The meeting came on an especially violent day in Iraq, with 25 people killed—17 Italian paramilitary police and eight Iraqis—in a car bombing in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Bremer, speaking at a briefing, seemed to place the responsibility of moving the process forward on the shoulders of the members of the Iraqi Governing Council, a U.S.-appointed body with limited authority. He said he was returning to Baghdad for "intense" talks with the council on how it can best proceed.
"The questions before us really relate to how best the Governing Council, which is responsible to make these decisions, how best (they) can do that," he said. "They will have to make their own decisions on this, and obviously I'll be going back and continuing those conversations."
A U.S. official said Bremer planned to present several options to the council this weekend for accelerating the hand-over of political power to Iraqis, and would ask them to choose one.
All the proposals involve retaining the council in some form but changing its structure, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's no decision to dissolve the Governing Council," the official said.
The vagueness of Bremer's pronouncements about turning over more authority to Iraqis was a reminder of how difficult that's proving to be, and of how neither the Governing Council nor the administration itself can agree on how or how fast to do it. The aim is to stabilize the situation and permit the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Although Bremer on Wednesday publicly called the council "an extremely capable group of ministers," his private assessment and that of many other officials is quite different.
"There's not a one of them who's a true democrat, who represents much more than his own group's narrow interests, who has any support except from his own people," said one senior official, who also asked not to be named, because his assessment contradicts the administration's public praise. "They squabble with each other about everything—when they bother to show up at all—and they've made about zero progress on the most important job, which is figuring out how to write a constitution and hold elections."
The administration is left with limited options, officials said Wednesday. Among the choices, they said, are:
_Holding elections to choose a constitutional committee and a temporary chief executive similar to interim President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who's serving until elections are held next year.
_Establishing an executive committee, perhaps composed of the members of the Governing Council and Iraq's Cabinet ministers, to adopt an interim constitution or a set of basic laws that would make it possible to take a census and elect delegates to a constitutional convention within six or eight months.
Another way under consideration to achieve an expanded council is setting up a sort of provisional parliament, numbering 150. It would comprise 50 people elected locally, 50 appointed notables such as tribal elders and an expanded Governing Council of 50.
Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who are the majority of the population, favor such a move, but the powerful Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities fear it would allow the Shiites to dominate the constitutional gathering.
_Temporarily reviving Iraq's 1932 constitution, which guaranteed free elections, minority rights, "freedom of conscience" and property rights and made Islam the state religion in what was then a monarchy.
Bremer left the White House on Wednesday morning declining to say whether Bush had decided on a strategy. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice joined the president and Bremer at the meeting.
In a sign of a possible policy shift, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan refused to reaffirm a previous administration belief that a political transition couldn't take place until a constitution is written and elections held.
"We're having some serious discussions both within the administration and with the Governing Council and Iraqi leaders about the best way to move forward," McClellan said. "I think to get too far into a discussion about what that may look like moving forward would be getting into speculation at this point."
White House officials have been frustrated by infighting, nepotism and inaction within the Governing Council.
"We want to accelerate our work with respect to putting a legal basis under the new Iraqi government," Secretary of State Colin Powell said after a State Department meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbz. "And we are doing everything we can to get the Governing Council equipped with what they need in the way of staff, what they need in the way of procedures in order to do the job that they want to do and we want them to do."
Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who's now at the National Defense University, said members of the council had failed to create an atmosphere of unity: "Where is the coming together for the sake of the country?"
The council has nine presidents, who rotate each month by the alphabetical order of their first names. Its members comprise 15 Shiites, six Sunnis, three Kurds and a Christian. Even so, many Iraqis think the council doesn't represent them because it was appointed by the Americans and is made up largely of former exiles.
By selecting members of the council on the basis of ethnic and religious affiliations, "we are reinforcing the image of a divided Iraq," Yaphe said. "That was not our goal."
(Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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