Friday, February 06, 2004

Transition plan

The transition plan that is to give power to an new Iraqi government is "likely to undergo major changes."

The U.S. plan to hand over power in Iraq is increasingly likely to undergo major changes rather than merely "refinements" because of increasing skepticism about the June 30 deadline for creating a provisional government and erosion of support for the proposal to use caucuses to select it, according to senior U.S. and U.N. officials.

The Bush administration still publicly clings to its transition plan, but a U.N. team scheduled to arrive in Iraq as early as Friday has been given a free hand to present its own blueprint for the country's political transition if it determines elections cannot be held by June in Iraq, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

In a sign of their growing anxiety, U.S. officials have also crafted some dramatically new ideas, in the hope of bringing a smooth conclusion to the struggling occupation. The list has been shared with the United Nations, the officials added.

One option is extending the June 30 deadline for installing an Iraqi government to allow enough time for the direct elections demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading cleric. There is already talk about a hypothetical extension to Jan. 1, 2005.

This could mean that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority would stay longer, which could carry political costs for President Bush in an election year and anger Iraqis who want an end to foreign occupation, U.S. officials conceded.

In a reflection of the full range of options on the table, another alternative is to end the occupation as planned on June 30 but to delay the selection of a provisional government until direct elections can be held. In that scenario, the authority would turn over power to an interim body, possibly by expanding the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to make it large enough to serve as a national assembly, or by calling a national conference of Iraqi leaders -- similar to the loya jirga in Afghanistan -- to select a sovereign body to rule until elections, U.S. officials said.

The original plan agreed to on Nov. 15 calls for 18 regional caucuses to select a national assembly that would then pick a leadership and cabinet. But the plan was quickly challenged by Sistani, leading the administration to offer to consider "refinements." Now, however, the proposal is so widely questioned and already so delayed that U.S. officials concede much more will have to be done to salvage it.


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