The Bush administration is taking a fresh look at its plans to turn over power in Iraq by June 30.
While that remains the deadline, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday it’s too early to tell whether it will have to be changed.
The review under way is in response to objections to parts of the current plan by a leader of Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims. The search for a compromise is taking place among administration officials and in quiet discussions with prominent Iraqis.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani demanded this week that any agreement to let U.S. forces remain in postwar Iraq be submitted to directly elected representatives. The current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council agreed in November that the next government could be chosen in regional caucuses, not full-scale elections.
The decision to turn over control to Iraqis by June 30 remains a constant goal, administration officials said. It was not clear how the goal could be sustained, however, if a compromise cannot be reached with the Shiite leader.
“It’s too early to tell,” Rumsfeld said. “There are going to be ups and downs and zigs and zags in the road."
Referendum on transition?
What has to be worked out, he said, is whether it’s more important to have elections and delay transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis or to transfer sovereignty and have elections afterward in support of the power shift.
One idea under consideration is to hold a referendum on transferring control, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
Looking for help, the State Department said the United Nations, with its expertise in setting up and monitoring elections, could send a delegation to Baghdad to help find a solution.
The U.N. role in Iraq will be explored next Monday in New York with Secretary-General Kofi Annan presiding at a meeting with U.S. and Iraqi officials. The chief U.S. administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, is likely to head the U.S. delegation.
Discussions already under way in Washington and with Iraqi leaders involve the possibility of opening up a series of planned caucuses in Iraq in ways that permit wider participation, the officials said.
Hovering over the transition are questions about how diverse an Iraqi government would be.
The Shiites are thought to have a 60 percent majority, although Bremer questioned that estimate Tuesday since Iraq has not had a census in almost two decades.
Bremer acknowledged the Shiites eventually might control the country, as the sect does in next-door Iran. “In a democracy it’s axiomatic that the majority will rule,” Bremer said on NBC’s “Today."
Reconsidering November plan
The current U.S. plan, now being reconsidered for fine-tuning, would have caucuses around the country select an interim legislature and executive in a newly self-governing Iraq.
The first formal national elections would not be held before March 2005.
Al-Sistani demanded Sunday that the provisional assembly, which would pick an interim government, be chosen by national elections.
Video: Bremer says situation improving in Iraq He also said the assembly should ratify an interim constitution, being drafted by the Iraqi Governing Council, and rule on whether U.S. and allied troops could remain in Iraq after July 1.
Bremer said the administration agrees with the ayatollah that it is important to have an elected assembly write a constitution, and he said that would happen in about a year.
But Bremer saw technical and mechanical problems with having early elections. Among them, he said, would be that Iraq has no electoral and political party laws, and it would take months to set up an election.
“We don’t have that much time until we transfer sovereignty in accordance with the will of the Iraqi people,” Bremer said.
The administrator acknowledged on CBS’ “The Early Show” that the caucus method was not as good as an election but said the caucus method would bring about an effective and representative government.
The administration in November designed its plan for transition to Iraqi rule under pressure from the United Nations and from critics of the war to depose President Saddam Hussein.
Still, the administration is determined to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to help in the transition. Nearly 500 have been killed, but Bremer told Fox News that the attacks are down since Saddam was captured in mid-December.
More than 100,000 U.S. troops still are in Iraq. The aim is gradually to shift security responsibilities to Iraqis currently in training.
Shiite Muslims have welcomed Saddam’s ouster despite their misgivings about the Americans, whose arrival delivered them from decades of oppression by Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, to which Saddam belongs. Shiites have generally refrained from attacking U.S. forces, leaving that to the Sunnis. Shiites assume they will soon translate their superior numbers into formal political power.
But the relatively slow pace of reconstruction, soaring unemployment, fuel shortages, inadequate services and widespread charges of corruption have steadily eaten into that goodwill. Al-Sistani’s thinly veiled warnings that more violence could beset Iraq if elections are not held may feed the rising frustration.
In Kut, a mainly Shiite city 95 miles southeast of Baghdad, Ukrainian troops fired in the air Monday to disperse about 400 Iraqis who rioted to demand jobs. One Ukrainian soldier, four Iraqi policemen and one protester were wounded.
British troops and Iraqi policemen clashed with Iraqi demonstrators Saturday in the southern, predominantly Shiite city of Amarah, killing six people and injuring 11. People in both cities were protesting the absence of jobs and alleged favoritism by Iraqi authorities in hiring practices.
Election impasse could spur violence
Many Iraqi Shiites, who revere their top clerics as saints and look to them for guidance in all matters, say they still feel betrayed by the United States for not coming to their aid when they rose in 1991 against Saddam, whose army killed tens of thousands of them. They say they would take up arms against the Americans if clerics like al-Sistani so order.
The impasse over the election issue also is likely to worsen communal relations in Iraq, where Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians are jockeying for advantage.
Bremer’s coalition authority would not be able to proceed with the implementation of the political plan without assurances that the country’s Shiites are on board. In this context, the views of al-Sistani are crucial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.