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U.S. turnaround in Iraq may be too little too late, experts warn

WASHINGTON—President Bush's sudden move to speed the transfer of political power to an interim Iraqi government doesn't promise a quick fix for America's troubles, U.S. officials and foreign policy experts said Thursday.

Several analysts said the step, while in the right direction, may be too little too late to counteract the increasing opposition to U.S. rule in Iraq described earlier this week in a top-secret CIA report.

Bush said Thursday that he'd directed administrator L. Paul Bremer to work with the 24-member Iraqi Governing Council to develop a strategy for Iraqis to assume more power.

Bush, making his first public comments on the new policy, called it "a positive development because ... that's what we want. We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country."

The decision to empower a provisional Iraqi government before the country has a new constitution and nationwide elections is a sharp reversal for Bush. When the French and other Europeans proposed a similar acceleration to speed the end of the U.S. occupation two months ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed it.

Since then, deadly suicide attacks on coalition forces in Iraq have intensified dramatically, while the start of Bush's re-election campaign has edged closer.

The delay has been costly, knowledgeable U.S. and foreign observers say.

"I think they're undoing many mistakes they made earlier. But they're doing it now in a game of catch-up," said retired ambassador David Ransom of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "I simply don't know if it's going to work."

Europeans, who opposed the war in Iraq, welcomed the new approach, while saying they wished it had come sooner.

"We are very pleased with the new ideas," said a French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But, he said, "The more you wait, the more difficult it is to establish the new government. ... It would have been easier three months ago."

The Governing Council has little standing with most Iraqis, who tend to see it as an extension of U.S. rule. Proposals for expanding it to give it more legitimacy quickly get entangled in Iraq's complex politics.

Bremer and the Governing Council are working against a Dec. 15 U.N. deadline for providing a timetable for a return to Iraqi rule.

The proposals Bremer is taking back to Baghdad involve enlarging the council through elections or another selection process. The contentious and time-consuming process of writing a new constitution would come later.

Some council members insisted this week that they be named to the provisional government.

"If they do that, it's a disaster," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who also accused the administration of changing direction too late.

Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought Bush's political advisers were motivated by a desire to demonstrate that U.S. troops were coming home when Americans went to the polls next November. But he cautioned against turning over security powers to the Iraqis before they are ready. "That's another form of cutting and running," he said.

Others said the new plan would succeed only if it brought on board Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, whose monopoly on political power under Saddam Hussein has been shattered. Sunnis are believed to have been behind most of the attacks on U.S. troops.

"I wouldn't say that they feel completely alienated from the political process, but they want an opportunity to participate more fully," Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, told a news conference Thursday.

Abizaid, who met with Sunni leaders during a recent trip to Iraq, said Bremer was "working very hard with the Governing Council in Iraq to ensure that moderate Sunni Arabs in the areas where we're having difficulty have an opportunity to participate fully in the reconstruction of Iraq."

A former U.S. intelligence official who spent time in Iraq recently said that meant rehabilitating midlevel military and Baath Party officials who ran the country under Saddam—a politically unsavory step.

"If they don't do that, I think the rest of this is whistling in the dark," said the official.

Explaining the administration's policy reversal, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that it had become clear that writing a new constitution would take time, while Iraqis were "clamoring" for more political power now.

"We're trying to be flexible and responsive to the fact that the Governing Council and other Iraqis believe that that timeline is probably longer for a permanent constitution than they believe accords with their ability to take on certain responsibilities and functions," Rice said.

Some senior U.S. officials have argued from the outset for following the model in Afghanistan, where an interim government was put in place before a constitution and elections.

Bremer has resisted turning over power quickly, officials said, while Pentagon officials have argued for handing power to the former exiles.

A senior U.S. official said that because of Iraq's sectarian politics, the administration had little choice for now but to work with the Governing Council, although perhaps in an expanded form. There is "no other venue where we can try to address all the competing demands of the different groups," said the official, who requested anonymity.

Also, the official said, there is "no single Iraqi leader who can bring all of them together. If there ever was such a person, Saddam probably had him killed."


(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.