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U.N. envoy outlines steps needed to end occupation

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Wednesday unveiled an ambitious to-do list for Iraqis and the American-led coalition before national elections next January.

He'd start with restoring security, then would dissolve the U.S.-handpicked Governing Council, re-employ idle members of the former regime and give rights to thousands of extrajudicial prisoners whom the coalition has detained without charges.

"There should be a minimum level of security so that we can achieve our mission," said the Algerian diplomat, who pointedly sent his condolences to innocent Iraqi civilians caught in a U.S. Marine siege of the city of Fallujah.

At the invitation of the United States and Iraqis, Brahimi has been surveying the political landscape the past 10 days, amid the worst bloodshed since Baghdad fell.

While acknowledging there's much to do, he outlined his vision:

Iraq should set up a caretaker government of "Iraqi men and women known for their honesty, integrity and competence" within six weeks to replace the Governing Council when it dissolves in 11 weeks. It would be led by a prime minister, a president and two vice presidents, presumably to give this fractious nation a blend of Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds at the top. Brahimi offered no names.

To assist those leaders, a "consultative assembly" that would only advise should be created, rather than the interim legislature some have proposed. Brahimi didn't say precisely how assembly members should be selected.

For months, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer has been working behind the scenes with the 25-member Governing Council of Iraqis he chose, to find a formula for leadership after he returns sovereignty to Iraqis and departs June 30.

Brahimi's plan partially dismantles Bremer's work but is aimed at their common interest: creating a temporary leadership to run everything but national security until the national elections that Bremer has set for seven months after he leaves.

Within hours, Bremer endorsed the plan as "highly constructive," hailing it as the result of talks with hundreds of Iraqis from across the country.

"We hope that the U.N. will continue to use its expertise to play a vital role in advising Iraq as it moves forward with its political transition," he said.

By trying to simplify the process, shunning the interim legislature, Brahimi was trying to get Iraqis to keep their eye on the goal—a one-citizen, one-vote process, yet to be mapped out—which he declared "the most important milestone."

It was unclear how Iraqis, who've never experienced true national elections, would receive the plan. Most have dismissed the Governing Council as a proxy for the U.S.-led coalition. Many yearn for strong leadership to crush the surging violence while worrying that the balance of power might be tipped outside their own group. Sunnis, Saddam's minority group, fear that the long-suppressed Shiite majority could gain an edge, for example. Then there are the Kurds, a minority mostly based in the North, who've had closer alliances with the West.

Brahimi said security must improve significantly to permit elections to take place Jan. 31.

He became U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's point man on the Iraqi crisis after a suicide bomber devastated U.N. headquarters last August, killing the early envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, 21 others and all but paralyzing U.N. work here.

As Brahimi laid out his vision for transition Wednesday, a mortar slammed into Baghdad's Sheraton Hotel, 1.5 miles away across the Tigris River, scaring visiting journalists and contractors but causing no injuries.

This month's violence has killed at least 87 U.S. service members and about 880 Iraqis, making it the deadliest month since the military set foot in Iraq. Most of the deaths are from fighting in the Sunni city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and clashes with the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr in cities to the south.

Brahimi made disparaging remarks about Marine operations to subdue Fallujah, where four American security contractors were ambushed and mutilated two weeks ago. "Collective punishment is certainly unacceptable, and the siege of the city is absolutely unacceptable," he said.

He also slammed anti-coalition insurgents who've staged suicide bombings and drive-by shootings as "terrorists who are coming in to obstruct the march of the Iraqis toward democracy."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Lakhdar Brahimi