BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a house that once belonged to Saddam Hussein's brother, Iraq's Governing Council and the top U.S. administrator in Iraq hashed out an agreement Saturday that foresees an end to the American occupation by July 1, 2004—six months ahead of schedule.
There were still many unknowns, however, including what role American troops would take after a provisional government is formed. American troops could be invited to stay on by the new provisional government, changing "from a force of occupation to (a) presence as a guest," said Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader who is this month's Governing Council president.
Some Iraqis already were criticizing the arrangements as inviting the division of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.
As if to punctuate the urgency behind the agreement, two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters crashed about 6:30 p.m. Saturday west of Mosul, killing at least 17 soldiers and injuring five. One soldier was still missing.
Witnesses said the two helicopters collided after one was fired on and perhaps struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, a version a U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad said she could not confirm.
Officials have downplayed worsening security as the reason for speeding up the handover of power, but the agreement Saturday, after hours of robust debate, is aimed at stamping out an insurgency that brings fresh attacks everyday. Saturday's helicopter crashes brought to 412 the number of U.S. military personnel killed since the invasion of Iraq began March 20, most of them since major combat was declared over May 1.
"There's a political dimension to our security strategy which is as important as the military strategy," said a senior coalition official who briefed reporters on the negotiations between U.S. officials and the Governing Council. "To win the war on terrorism empowering Iraqis at every level is a priority."
Saturday's agreement to transfer power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqis was described as an initiative from the Governing Council, but came after the top U.S. official in Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, had returned to Washington for unscheduled consultations at the White House last week.
The agreement pledges the Iraqis to a government that includes protection of free speech, an independent judiciary and separation of powers.
"I'm very happy, I'm proud. I think this is the feast of the Iraqi people," said Talabani, this month's council president and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "This is what Iraqi people were dreaming to have."
But the three-page document leaves many details still to be decided. The agreement, for example, calls for each of Iraq's 18 provinces to convene a caucus of 15 people, five of whom are to be selected by the Governing Council and five by the provincial governor. But it is unclear how the final five members will be selected.
Even senior White House officials acknowledge one of the most difficult parts of the new strategy will be agreeing on a format for the caucuses or town hall meetings since local government structures vary widely across Iraq.
The caucuses are to choose delegates to a provisional legislature by the end of May. That legislature then is to convene in Baghdad to select the provisional government by the end of June.
But the size of that legislature has not yet been fixed. Nor has there been a decision on what the provisional government will consist of.
The agreement was immediately criticized by some in the Sunni community who believe the agreement will lead to rancor between Iraq's various ethnic and religious communities.
"By having delegates selected in each (province), the Americans want to split Iraq between Sunni and Shia and Muslims and Christians, Arab and Kurdish. This will be against the unity of Iraq," said Sheikh Abdul al Salam al Kubaisi, the alama or religious leader for all Sunni imams in Iraq. "It is simpler to have free elections or direct elections than all these steps."
Some intellectuals fear the caucuses will increase the influence of conservative tribal sheikhs at the expense of educated experts who are needed to rebuild the war-torn country.
"The tribal leaders do not have the ability, knowledge or political awareness to choose delegates," said Sadoun al Dulame, a former Baghdad University professor who regularly polls Iraqis on current events. "They will choose according to personal interest, friendships and their relatives."
The agreement also calls for direct elections by March 15 for drafters of a constitution, an important concession to Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who issued a religious edict demanding as much.
Talabani said the Governing Council, which consists of 24 people handpicked by the United States, will go out of business after each of Iraq's 18 provinces select delegates to the transitional legislature. U.S. officials recently have complained that the council is ineffective and paralyzed by internal rivalries.
At that point, Talabani said, "the Governing Council will bid the people farewell and we will have done our duty." Council members will be able to stand for election in their own province.
The agreement foresees the drafting of a "basic law" by the Governing Council by the end of February that spells out the timetable for the end of the U.S. occupation.
By the end of March, the Governing Council also will have negotiated an agreement with the United States and other nations with troops in Iraq a series of agreements over what role those troops are expected to have in Iraq.
Governing Council members declined to speculate Saturday on whether presidential politics in the United States was a factor in speeding up the process.
"I think they responded to our insistent desire that we should recover our sovereignty," said Adnan Pachachi, a council member and former foreign minister for Iraq before Saddam.
Others were uncertain whether the agreement would end attacks on Americans.
"Bush will get benefits by being able to say he is not occupying Iraq but if the Americans are still in charge in a supervisory role, this is still an occupation," said al Kubaisi, who also heads a college for imams near the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiya.
"Americans came here for a reason and America entered Iraq in war and America will leave Iraq in the same way—in war, with Iraqis fighting them."
IRAQI TIMETABLE AT A GLANCE
End of February—Current Governing Council is to pass a "basic law" that sets out the timetable and steps for selection of a provisional government.
End of March—Governing Council negotiates security agreements with the countries that have troops in Iraq. These agreements will govern what foreign troops are expected to do or not do.
End of May—Selection of a transitional legislature to convene in Iraq after caucuses in each of Iraq's provinces. No size has been determined for the legislature.
End of June—Election of the provisional government by the transitional legislature.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Ron Hutcheson and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.