Bremer pins hopes on UN as exit strategy from Iraq


By Justin Huggler in Baghdad
16 February 2004

As the violence continued in Iraq yesterday, the head of the American occupation administration admitted the US was waiting for the United Nations to find a way out of the impasse on handing over power to Iraqis. Speaking on two American talk shows, Paul Bremer admitted the US was now pinning its hopes on the UN, an organisation it had written off as irrelevant at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Rejected by the Americans and forced to flee Iraq last year after two bombings, the UN is suddenly back in the frame in Iraq.

US hopes of getting at least partly out of the quagmire that Iraq has become and handing power to an Iraqi interim administration by President Bush's deadline of 30 June are looking more troubled than ever after Saturday's attack in Fallujah, in which insurgents stormed an Iraqi police station, killing at least 21, and an Iraqi army garrison.

The US administration is desperate to get its troops out of harm's way before Mr Bush faces re-election in November.

American plans to hand over political power to an interim Iraqi government also look to be in as much trouble. Mr Bremer said yesterday in interviews on ABC's This Week and CNN's Late Editions that the US may be about to ditch its plan to choose an interim Iraqi government with regional caucuses. Diplomats have already said the plan is dead in the water after it was rejected by the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia majority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani is demanding direct elections, which the US claims there is not time to organise by June.

Mr Bremer insisted that Mr Bush's deadline to hand over power still stood, though he could not say how an interim government would be chosen. He said the Americans were waiting for the recommendations of an UN mission recently sent to find a way out of the impasse, under Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat. Mr Bremer said: "We're waiting to see what he [Mr Brahimi] says when he issues his report, hopefully in the next week or 10 days." He said the eventual solution "may be different from the caucus plan".

Mr Brahimi said, after meeting Ayatollah Sistani, that he backed his demands for direct elections in principle, but his spokesman has said the UN mission accepts that direct elections are not possible before 30 June. Mr Bremer said yesterday that the US would accept bringing elections forward to the end of this year or January 2005 but there would be some form of handover by June.

The attack in Fallujah has underlined how difficult it will be for the US to disengage from Iraq. The moment American troops are pulled back, as they were in Fallujah, the new Iraqi authorities set up by the US are likely to come under attack from insurgents - attacks they seem ill-equipped to withstand. It seems unlikely an Iraqi government that was not directly elected could survive long without US military protection.

American uncertainty over who is behind the attacks surfaced yesterday when Mr Bremer said foreign militants were involved, as Iraqi police claimed. But American officials in Baghdad claimed foreign involvement was unlikely, and that the attacks looked more like the work of former members of Saddam Hussein's army.

*Iraqi police have captured Muhammad Zimam Abd al-Razzaq al-Sadun, a senior member of Saddam's toppled Baath Party and number 41 on Washington's "most wanted" list. Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister, Ahmed Kadhim, said: "What is special about this operation is that the Iraqi police alone conducted it. It ... should be a source of joy for Iraqis because they now have police they can depend on."
16 February 2004 10:26