U.S. Joins Iraqis to Seek U.N. Role in Interim Rule
New York Times
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN and JOHN H. CUSHMAN Jr.
WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 The Bush administration, trying to rescue its troubled plan to restore sovereignty to Iraq, is joining Iraqi leaders to press the United Nations to play a role in choosing an interim government in Baghdad, administration officials said Thursday.
L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator in Baghdad, and an Iraqi delegation led by Adnan Pachachi, the current chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, will make an urgent appeal on Monday for greater United Nations involvement, the officials said.
In Iraq on Thursday, tens of thousands of demonstrators put pressure on the United States to change its plans, marching in Basra to support calls by Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for direct elections.
The new move involved yet another change in strategy for an administration under pressure from shifting events in Iraq. From the start of planning the war to oust Saddam Hussein, the administration has had an ambivalent attitude toward the United Nations.
As it begins to reach out for help, and as European nations indicate that they may provide some, the administration is also considering reversing itself and allowing businesses in countries that opposed the war, including France, Germany and Russia, to bid on contracts to rebuild Iraq, officials said.
In recent months, the administration has said it wanted the United Nations to take part in building Iraqi democracy after the transition to self-rule. But the administration's intention was disrupted when Ayatollah Sistani criticized as undemocratic the American plan for caucuses to select an interim government.
There were few details of what the United Nations was being asked to do to help the caucus plan, but administration officials said it could involve helping organize and perhaps certifying the legitimacy of the meetings.
The caucuses, to be held in each of Iraq's 18 states, are to choose delegations to a national assembly that will sit while a permanent constitution is written and elections are planned for 2005. The plan is so complex that some of its supporters confess to bewilderment about carrying it out.
"It's clear we want the United Nations to be involved," an administration official said. "It's clear the Iraqis want them. It's clear the security situation has improved, and we're willing to help with their security. But there are many stages we have to go through to get an agreement."
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan is said to be highly reluctant to give his blessing to what is widely seen as a jerry-built process in effect concocted to let the United States hand over sovereignty to Iraq by June 30, as the American elections get under way.
"This meeting, for us, is a step along the way," an aide to Mr. Annan said. "It's not a meeting where there will be a decision on our part. We're going to listen to what they have to say, reflect on what they expect of us and get more detail on exactly how these caucuses are going to run."
Mr. Bremer left for Washington on Thursday to meet with President Bush on Friday. The circumstances of his sudden departure put pressure on Mr. Annan, whose reluctance to send a team back to Iraq is shared by colleagues still grieving over the bomb attack last summer on United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.
People close to Mr. Annan say he has rarely been in a more uncomfortable position. For months, he has wanted the United Nations to oversee Iraq's transition to self-government. But he did not want it to be seen as merely giving in to an American plan worked out with Iraqis chosen by Mr. Bremer.
In Baghdad, Mr. Pachachi said that as the Iraqi Governing Council tries to refine the mechanics of the caucuses, the United Nations would be of great help. "If the United Nations is unable or unwilling to play a big role, that would be a matter of great regret for us," he said.
What may persuade Mr. Annan to involve the United Nations, American officials said, is the urgent situation in Iraq, and the fact that Mr. Bremer and Mr. Pachachi are coming with a request for help endorsed implicitly by Ayatollah Sistani.
Administration officials took pains to say the effort to get Mr. Annan and the United Nations involved began with the Iraqis. This was in keeping with the American insistence that it is the Iraqis who are working out their governing problems.
One administration official said Mr. Pachachi, a former foreign minister, and a handful of other Iraqis on the Governing Council have borne the brunt of the work by leading the effort to write an interim Iraqi law that would determine the nation's federal structure, the role of Islam and many other issues.
"This is an Iraqi process," an American official insisted. "It's an Iraqi generated initiative. These guys in the Governing Council are trying to deal with their constituencies, including one very vocal constituent group that had 10,000 people in the streets of Basra this morning."
He was referring to the demonstration in the heart of Shiite territory backing the ayatollah's demands for a democratically elected interim government.
Since the beginning of the American occupation of Iraq, the United States has had difficulties dealing with the country's three biggest groups: Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Now those problems are reaching full boil, according to some administration officials, with Kurds demanding their own semiautonomous state, Sunnis feeling frozen out because of a campaign to rid Iraq's leadership of anyone associated with Mr. Hussein and now Shiites demanding a more democratic transition.
American officials say the Nov. 15 plan, with its caucus process, is "holy writ" in the administration.
The tough question is likely to be whether the United Nations takes part in the caucuses, perhaps even conducting ballots at the caucus meetings. But aides to Mr. Annan say they fear signing on to something that only looks democratic.
"Are we supposed to have an advisory role or to have people in each of Iraq's 18 provinces?" a United Nations official asked. "What would they do if they are out in the provinces? Who handles their security? Are we being asked to do something where we have no real authority? These are very difficult questions that need to be answered."
More than one official noted the coincidence that the session to discuss the legitimacy of caucuses would occur on the very day of the Iowa caucuses, which are also notorious for their complexity.
Reporting was contributed by Steven R. Weisman in Washington, John H. Cushman Jr. in Baghdad, Warren Hoge at the United Nations and David E. Sanger in Washington.