New York Times
Saturday 17 May 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 16 In an abrupt reversal, the United States and Britain have indefinitely put off their plan to allow Iraqi opposition forces to form a national assembly and an interim government by the end of the month.
Instead, top American and British diplomats leading reconstruction efforts here told exile leaders in a meeting tonight that allied officials would remain in charge of Iraq for an indefinite period, said Iraqis who attended the meeting. It was conducted by L. Paul Bremer, the new civilian administrator here.
Mr. Bremer, who was accompanied by John Sawers, a British diplomat representing Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the Iraqi political figures that the allies preferred to revert to the concept of creating an "interim authority" not a provisional government so that Iraqis could assist them by creating a constitution for Iraq, revamping the educational system and devising a plan for future democratic elections.
"It's quite clear that you cannot transfer all powers onto some interim body, because it will not have the strength or the resources to carry those responsibilities out," The Associated Press quoted Mr. Sawers as saying. "There was agreement that we should aim to have a national conference as soon as we reasonably could do so."
One Iraqi who attended the meeting said Iraqi opposition leaders expressed strong disappointment over the reversal.
The decision comes at a time when Washington and London have been taking new steps to restore law and order in Iraq, cope with the devastation of civilian institutions and halt the looting and violent crime.
These conditions have emboldened former opposition figures to move rapidly into the political vacuum in Iraq, and former members of Saddam Hussein's government and the Baath Party to blame the allies for fomenting collapse, unemployment and suffering among the population.
In a step calculated to combat any resurgence of Baath Party influence here, Mr. Bremer today issued an order banning up to 30,000 top-ranking members "from future employment in the public sector."
"By this means, the coalition provisional authority will ensure that representative government in Iraq is not threatened by Baathist elements returning to power and that those in positions of authority in the future are acceptable to the people of Iraq," Mr. Bremer said in a statement.
Today's decision to extend allied control indefinitely over the governing of Iraq was conveyed to Iraqi political figures as the United States and Britain worked assiduously at the United Nations to win broad international consensus for a resolution to lift economic sanctions on Iraq, in order to begin selling oil to finance reconstruction.
In seeking support, the allies are facing demands for a greater United Nations role in shaping postwar Iraq, including a setting of the terms by which an "interim authority" would make the transition to democratically elected government.
"They want broader support because they are desperate to get the oil pumping," said an Iraqi who attended the meeting. Mr. Sawers, who is Britain's outgoing ambassador to Egypt, spoke of the need to complete the "tactical" measures of re-establishing legal and social institutions before vesting a government with sovereign control.
The Iraqi who attended the meeting added that the decision also appeared to reflect apprehensions in the Bush administration, and more intensely in London, that the former Iraqi opposition forces are still a disparate group and that the Kurdish leaders as well have yet to coalesce into a ruling body.
The fear is that a divided or weak interim government will not be able to withstand the intense and at times conflicting ethnic and religious pressures that have tended to divide Iraq instead of cementing it together.
"I don't think they trust this group to function as a political leadership," said the Iraqi political figure who attended. "And for us it is very difficult to participate in something that we have no control over. We don't want to be part of the blame committee when something goes wrong."
Opposition leaders were "very respectful" to Mr. Bremer and Mr. Sawers, a participant said, "but I think everyone was also pretty forceful about the need to have full sovereignty for the Iraqis." A question they kept posing, he added, was, "Do you want to run this place, or should we?"
No date was set for creating an interim authority, and no details about its powers and functions were discussed in the meeting, the Iraqis said. Mr. Bremer said he would meet with the opposition leaders for further discussions in two weeks.
"They retracted what they said before," an Iraqi political figure said. The provisional government idea is gone, he said. As for the idea of convening a national assembly to select a government, he said, "there is no such thing anymore."
Today's decision was a disappointment for the former opposition forces and their supporters in the Pentagon and the Congress, where officials had been pressing for an early turnover of sovereign power to a government formed by the opposition groups.
On April 28, the United States and Britain sponsored a political gathering of about 300 Iraqis and supported their call for a national conference to meet by the end of May to select a transitional government. Zalmay Khalilzad, who has served as President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, was a co-chairman of the April meeting, but did not return to Iraq for tonight's meeting.
On May 5, Jay Garner, the civilian administrator who preceded Mr. Bremer, said the core of a new Iraqi government would emerge this month. "Next week, or by the second weekend in May, you'll see the beginning of a nucleus of a temporary Iraqi government, a government with an Iraqi face on it that is totally dealing with the coalition," General Garner said during a visit to Basra.
At that time, he said he expected such a government to include figures like Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord, the Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Since then, the group of former exiles and their Kurdish allies has expanded their leadership council to include another Sunni Muslim leader and another Shiite Muslim leader.
The Iraqi figures were also surprised by the reversal since it appeared in recent weeks that Pentagon officials had persuaded the White House that the best course was to turn over power as quickly as possible to opposition forces.
But as the breadth of systemic breakdown in Iraq has become more visible, a counterargument has grown that the failure of the opposition to make the transition to a viable government would reflect poorly on the allied victory over Mr. Hussein and add to instability.
General Garner attended tonight's meeting but spoke very little, participants said. He was accompanied by Ryan Crocker, a deputy assistant secretary of state.
Attending from the Pentagon was Walter Slocombe, who has been given the assignment to examine the growing problem of how to get under control the military forces that each of the main opposition leaders now controls in Iraq. He is said to be working on a plan to meld them into a national security force, a task that would require Kurdish leaders to give up control over their armies.
The opposition leaders were also asked to meet on Tuesday with Lt. Gen. John Abazaid, deputy to Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall American commander in the Middle East and South Asia, to discuss how the opposition groups can contribute to improving security.
All of the Iraqi figures were pleased with Mr. Bremer's decision on dismantling the Baath Party. Nonetheless, Mr. Bremer reserved the right to himself to make exceptions to the ban in cases where the knowledge and expertise of a former Baath official might be essential to government functions, where the person's prior membership in the party was deemed nonthreatening and where a renunciation of Baath principles had been secured.