Iraq Intelligence

With 90 days to handover of Iraq control, U.S. faces big obstacles

WASHINGTON — A counter on the Coalition Provisional Authority's Web site announces how long until the United States returns sovereignty to the Iraqi people. On Friday, it stood at 90 days.

For the Bush administration, there's little reason—or time—to celebrate.

With less than three months to go, virtually every key aspect of the transition from U.S. to Iraqi authority remains in question, according to U.S. officials involved in the process and outside experts.

Iraqis and Americans still must fashion an interim Iraqi government acceptable to all sides that takes over running the country.

Iraqis and Americans still must negotiate the legal status of U.S. forces who will remain after the June 30 handover.

The United Nations must define its role and prepare to organize elections.

And the United States must organize a large new embassy to replace the occupation authority—a move that will also mean a major turnover in personnel and expertise at a critical time.

Adding to the burden, as the date approaches, senior U.S. officials predict a further upsurge in violence like the attacks that killed at least 11 U.S. soldiers and four American contractors this week.

"There's a lot to do. It's not all going to get done," said former State Department official Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington foreign policy group.

Analysts argue that with the 2004 presidential election months a way, a ragged transition in Iraq could undercut President Bush's re-election campaign.

But there are few easy solutions to the problems that must be resolved before the handover.

So little time is left, for example, that the only conceivable interim Iraqi government is some version of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council—even thought the council has little legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis. It remains to be seen whether it can govern the country.

State Department officials, backed by the CIA, favor a major expansion of the council to dilute the influence of former Iraqi exiles, such as Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. The Pentagon, which has backed Chalabi, opposes that.

Even a simple expansion of the 25-member council could be arduous, given the competing demands of Iraq's Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Kurds.

"It's a very complicated process," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington. "We have to look to the Iraqis to contribute to part of the redesign. And they have shied away from any responsibility."

After the Iraqis take back control of their country, more than 100,000 U.S. troops will remain, but with uncertain legal status.

Plans to sign a formal agreement, like those the United States has with many countries that host its troops, have been postponed until after the interim Iraqi government takes control.

Bush administration officials say existing U.N. resolutions provide authority for the troop presence in Iraq. But it remains to be seen what would happen if the new Iraqi leadership ordered the U.S. troops, whose presence is unpopular with some Iraqis, to leave.

The Bush administration says that many steps toward the transition have already been accomplished.

Economic rebuilding is accelerating. A transitional law was signed on March 8, mandating elections for a truly representative government by January 2005. One government ministry, the Ministry of Health, already has been handed back to Iraqi control, and others are to follow before June 30.

Answers to the open political questions will become clearer after the current visit to Iraq by Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Iraq, U.S. officials and U.N. diplomats say.

Brahimi is expected to report back with a proposal for an interim Iraqi government, while a separate U.N. team is in Iraq to help Iraqis prepare for elections.

After months of resisting a wide role for the United Nations, the Bush administration is urging the world body—and NATO allies—to help it stabilize Iraq.

Brahimi is said to be cautious about taking on too much responsibility for Iraq, particularly if the United Nations is not given sufficient authority.

And top White House officials, says Yaphe, "don't want to give up control."

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that the United States has agreed to accept a new U.N. Security Council resolution, which could give diplomatic cover to other nations that have troops in Iraq. It might also mandate a separate security force to protect Iraqi government officials and U.N. workers.

But with all the uncertainty, the handover ceremony in Baghdad may be less of a climactic moment than Bush and his advisers had once envisioned.

"A lot more will be expected of the turn-over than will actually happen," Yaphe said.


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