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U.N. envoy leaves open a role for Iraqi Governing Council members

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, widely criticized as illegitimate and ineffective, are likely to remain in key decision-making roles after the American-led occupation returns limited sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, Iraqis briefed on the plan said Monday.

Two council members and the body's spokesman said U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had backed away from his earlier recommendation to scrap the council and install a "caretaker" government of technocrats and political outsiders.

Instead, they said, he supports a plan to expand the 25-member council within a month to include more political parties and unrepresented provinces. The larger body then would elect a president, who would appoint two vice presidents and a prime minister to take power by July 1. The council probably would be absorbed into a Cabinet.

Brahimi is racing to form an interim government by the end of May so it will be in place when the U.S. occupation formally ends June 30. The interim government will rule until general elections next January.

Negotiations have begun at the United Nations on a new Security Council resolution that would give international backing to the interim government and define the legal status of 135,000 American service members and additional coalition troops who will remain in Iraq.

In Washington and New York, U.S. officials and U.N. diplomats said that, contrary to earlier suggestions, the new government probably would contain a mix of political personalities and technocrats.

There have been running political battles in Baghdad and Washington over what role, if any, some of the Governing Council's more controversial members should have, including Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, long a Pentagon favorite to run Iraq.

Chalabi and other council members have criticized Brahimi's suggestions that council members and others with political ambitions be barred from the interim government.

American officials said they hadn't yet been fully briefed on the results of Brahimi's latest consultations. But they played down the apparent shift, saying the interim government will have limited tenure and will be responsible primarily for arranging nationwide elections.

In addition, they said, Brahimi never explicitly excluded Governing Council members. However, the U.N. envoy's distaste for Chalabi, and Chalabi's criticism of the United Nations' performance during Saddam Hussein's regime, are no secret.

"What he did suggest was that the next government that takes over sovereignty on July 1 should consist of men and women known for their honesty, integrity and competence in the first instance," Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said Monday. "They should have the professional capacity and competence to run the affairs of this country for the limited period of seven or eight months leading up to elections, when a fully representative government will be elected."

Brahimi's latest ideas received mixed reviews from Governing Council members.

Some said they meant that Iraqis soon would inherit their third set of unelected rulers since Saddam was ousted last year.

"When the Americans toppled Saddam, they were supposed to allow Iraqis to form a new government," said Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Muslim Kurd on the council. "Instead, an American administration was imposed on us. Then they imposed the Governing Council on Iraqis. They're about to make that mistake for a third time. I had hoped there would be new faces, ones that haven't been in office before. People have had enough of us."

An earlier agreement between the council and occupation authorities proposed dissolving the body by June 30.

Othman and other members lobbied for a fresh, diverse congress to elect a president or three-person executive council. But American administrators stalled the plan so long that there's no longer time to overhaul the interim government before the hand-over, Othman said.

In effect, the same council, plus other politicians with ties to current members, will continue to rule until January's elections.

"(Americans) like fast food. They like fast government," Othman said. "But this is the wrong move at this time, with the prisoner abuse scandal in the news, no security and poor living conditions."

But Hamid Majid Mousa, a council member representing the Iraqi Communist Party who met with Brahimi early Monday, said the new plan would bring a "larger, stronger, more united" interim leadership.

Mousa bristled at recent poll results that show Iraqis have little faith in the council and view its members as American puppet rulers.

"I don't own an American tank and didn't ride into Baghdad on one, because I've been here and will stay here," Mousa said. "On the contrary, we have wide popular support, but that's not enough. We need to try new tactics and bring in more political parties."

Iraqis consistently have rejected the council because members were unelected and many returned to Iraq recently after long exiles.

But many Iraqis rank political woes behind more pressing issues of security and unemployment, according to two recent polls.

Hamed Kifaey, the council's top spokesman, said American administrators undermined the council. Now, with the clock ticking, he said, council members have no choice but to continue in their roles and welcome some new members.

"And if it gets too tough, we always have our American allies, if we can still call them that after Abu Ghraib," Kifaey said, referring to the U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the notorious prison west of Baghdad. "The Americans are very good at losing friends, not making them."


(Allam reported from Baghdad, Strobel from Washington.)


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