WASHINGTON—The Bush administration is abandoning its 3-month-old plan to select a new Iraqi government through a complex caucus system in the face of overwhelming opposition from the leading Shiite cleric and other Iraqis, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Instead, the administration, which is intent on sticking to the June 30 date for ending the American occupation of Iraq, is leaning toward handing over power by then to an interim, unelected body, officials said.
One possibility under discussion is to turn over sovereignty to an expanded version of the 25-member Iraq Governing Council, an American-appointed body that many Iraqis hold in low regard.
The development marks another major policy adjustment for the Bush administration in its efforts to install a stable, post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. It would rewrite a hard-won Nov. 15 agreement between U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and Governing Council members.
The new plan, the details of which are still to be settled, represents a compromise with the Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the Shiite cleric who has demanded national elections to choose a new government.
U.S. officials countered that elections would be impossible to organize by June 30. United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who just returned from Iraq, is expected to agree when he reports later this week and instead propose elections in late 2004 or early next year.
"What we're talking about is an interim government to whom sovereignty will be transferred until such time as you can have a full constitution in place and that you can have a full election, which nobody believes is possible by June, but at some point in the future," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday.
"Whether it's the end of this year or sometime next year remains to be determined," Powell said.
Another U.S. official said elections are unlikely to be held until after the U.S. presidential elections in November.
Some of the officials requested anonymity because they spoke without authorization from the Bush administration.
It remains to be seen whether a temporary, unelected government, either based on the Governing Council or some other formula, can stabilize the country and deal with its myriad problems.
Many Iraqi intellectuals, while harboring disdain for the council, say they'd rather see the country in Iraqi hands than delay the June 30 deadline for the transfer of authority.
"The Americans will not be able to solve our problems better than we can," said Hazem al Niemi, a researcher at the Arab Homeland Center at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. "In nine months, all the Americans did was to get rid of the former regime. ... They broke our state and have no idea how to fix it. Now it's our turn."
The CIA remains pessimistic that sovereignty can be returned to Iraqis without ethnic strife or even civil war, one of the senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The agency is concerned about meddling by neighboring Iran, the possibility that Iraqi Sunni Muslims who have been resisting the U.S. occupation will turn their violence on majority Shiites if they gain power, and the possibility that Iraqis will not accept elections supervised by the Governing Council.
A more immediate question is Sistani, a reclusive cleric whose words are revered by many Iraqi Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the country's population.
U.S. officials predict that Sistani will accept a proposal for elections in December 2004 or January 2005, so long as they are supervised by the United Nations, rather than Washington or the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.
Judith Yaphe, a former Iraq analyst at the CIA, said Sistani, who bitterly opposed the caucus plan drawn up Nov. 15, has already won much of what he sought and may go along with the new plan.
Yaphe, now at the National Defense University, said the compromise plan to return sovereignty to Iraq without caucuses or quick elections is the best available course now.
It's "unfortunate, but it's all we're left with," she said.
Administration spokesmen said no final decisions will be made about how to conduct the sovereignty transfer until after Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, makes his report.
"We're looking to hear from the United Nations," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We always said we think the U.N. can bring us ideas, refinements, modifications, whatever, to help make that (Nov. 15) plan ... easier to implement and to try to help accomplish those goals."
Another department official, who requested anonymity, said two options are under consideration in addition to turning over power to an expanded governing council.
One would be a caretaker "technocratic government," probably made up of largely apolitical professionals who run Iraqi government ministries.
The other, which is less likely, would be a "wide open, Iowa-style" caucus that would be a streamlined version of the unwieldy caucus system outlined in the Nov. 15 agreement.
The current Governing Council, which was picked by Bremer, is heavily weighted with Iraqi exiles who have a precarious standing in postwar Iraq.
Expanding it could require protracted negotiations to achieve fair ethnic representation, officials said.
"Where are we going to be getting some Sunnis who have some credibility on the street and are willing to put a bull's-eye on their head?" asked the State Department official. He referred to an accelerating campaign of intimidation by insurgents against Iraqis who cooperate with the United States.
"Everybody's willing to go second," he said.
Backstage maneuvering among leading Iraqis on the council has accelerated as the U.S. change in plans has become evident.
About the only thing all sides seem to agree on is that Iraq's sovereignty should be returned on June 30 as planned.
"We've had many problems with the occupying power," said Shakir al Dujaily of the Iraqi Communist Party, which has a seat on the Governing Council. "We are waiting for our mission. We can tackle the problems ourselves. They are Iraqi problems."
(Strobel reported from Washington, Allam from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.