US weighs changes as Iraqis press for power shift
( 2004-01-17 10:11) (Agencies)
Iraq's U.S. Governor Paul Bremer consulted with U.S. President Bush on Friday as the United States acted to smooth over a dispute with Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric on Friday, saying it was willing to make changes to its plan to hand political power to Iraqis.
Shifting policy in the face of growing opposition among Iraq's majority Shi'ites to its handover plan, the Bush administration also said it was eager for the United Nations to return to Iraq to help with the planned transition.
Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has refused to support the U.S. plan for regional caucuses to select a transitional assembly that will pick an interim government for sovereignty by July and demanded direct elections.
"These are questions that, obviously, need to be looked at," the U.S. governor, Paul Bremer, said after meeting Bush. But he expressed "doubts" about the demand for direct elections before the transfer of power on June 30.
"We're intending to stick to the timeline that we've laid out" -- for the transfer of power on June 30 and direct elections in 2005," Bremer told reporters.
Senior administration officials said they were open to changes, within that timeline, to address Iraqi concerns.
"We are willing to discuss refinements or improvements," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
The United States and United Nations share the view that a lack of electoral registers and polling laws mean it is not feasible to hold elections before an Iraqi transitional government takes power.
"We have doubts -- as does the secretary-general -- that elections can in fact be called in the time frame of the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30," said Bremer. He is due to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday and is expected to ask him to send a U.N. political fact-finding team to Iraq.
The United States went to war in Iraq without the backing of the U.N. Security Council and had long resisted a wider U.N. role in postwar Iraq. Now the Bush administration wants to persuade the United Nations to return to Iraq to oversee the handover, hoping this will convince Iraqis to support it.
Diplomats at the United Nations said Washington would like to see the United Nations play an advisory role and perhaps certify the fairness of the transition afterward.
Annan pulled U.N. international staff out of Iraq last year after suicide bomb attacks on the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters.
Sistani has declared the U.S. plan will not produce a government acceptable to Iraqis and warned of more political tension and violence if elections are not held soon.
Tens of thousands of Shi'ites, flexing their political muscle after three decades of repression under Saddam Hussein, marched through the southern city of Basra on Thursday to chants of "No to America."
In the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, many supported Sistani's call. "It's natural to have a Shi'ite government because we are the majority," said Turk Abbas, an elderly blanket seller.
Sistani's stance could turn Shi'ites against Washington as U.S.-led forces battle guerrillas in minority Sunni Muslim areas.
Meanwhile, Turkey's powerful military warned that a federation in Iraq based on ethnic lines -- which would likely give autonomy to the Kurds -- would result in bloodshed.
"If there is a federal structure in Iraq on an ethnic basis, the future will be very difficult and bloody," Turkish Gen. Ilker Basbug said in Ankara.
Pressure from the Kurds for control over more territory in northern Iraq and opposition from Sunni Muslims as well as NATO-member Turkey have further complicated U.S. plans.
In Iraq, the U.S. military said it was investigating reports of detainees being abused at one of its detention centers, but gave no details of the allegations.
The United States is holding an estimated 9,500 detainees in Iraq on security grounds. Many others have been detained and released since Saddam was ousted last April.
Since the start of the war in March, 343 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq, 228 of them in guerrilla attacks since Bush said major combat ended in May. Including non-combat deaths, the U.S. toll stands at 496.
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