BAGHDAD — The United States yesterday abandoned plans to call a huge national congress of exiles and opposition leaders to form a new government for Iraq and instead opted for a small council of Iraqis to be appointed by U.S. occupation authorities.
The smaller group, consisting of two to three dozen Iraqi advisers, could be in place within three weeks, a senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) told reporters last night on the condition of anonymity.
The council would be charged with drafting a constitution and other tasks leading to a turnover of authority by the United States and its coalition partners to a democratically elected government.
The CPA official declined to give reasons behind the shift, but it appeared to be designed to dilute influence of some exiled political groups that had supplied intelligence to the United States and had exerted influence over U.S. planning for the war.
The 25-to-40-member council will be “the voice and face of Iraq in its interaction with the CPA,” the official said.
“We are asking Iraqis … for recommendations. I hope it will be a broad-based process” reflecting Iraq’s geographic regions and demographics, the official said.
However, he said, “these are guidelines, not quotas.”
He said that the coalition, which has assumed responsibility as the occupying power, would remain in control of Iraq’s affairs until a permanent government is elected.
He could not say when a sovereign Iraqi government would be in place, but yesterday’s shift in plans marked an effort to speed the process.
“The CPA is going to be in charge until there is a sovereign representative, democratic Iraqi government chosen,” the official said. “The council would put forward information from various ministries.”
The council would replace a loose grouping of seven Iraqi exile and Kurdish groups — including the London-based Iraqi National Congress, a large umbrella group, and two Kurdish parties — and also supersede the gathering of several hundred prominent Iraqis that had been tentatively planned for mid-July.
CPA officials, in response to questions, refused to say whether the seven organizations would be represented in the new council.
These groups have been working with the CPA and its predecessor, the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), and their representatives have long assumed they would have a prominent voice in the shaping of the new government.
The group of seven, already impatient with Washington’s deliberate pace in turning over power, has been organizing a convention of 300 or more Iraqi technocrats, religious and tribal leaders, in an attempt to reclaim some of the political process.
That gathering may still go on.
As for the council, it will be working with other Iraqis — both indigenous and returned exiles — to draft a constitution that will be voted on by citizens in a referendum.
Coalition officials stressed last night that the Iraqis would write and ratify it in an “Iraqi-throughout process.”
The CPA is effectively the occupational government here, gradually replacing ORHA. Its senior ranks are dominated by Americans from the State and Defense departments, as well as retired ambassadors and government officials from earlier U.S. administrations.
Officials from other nations in the coalition are also participating.
CPA chief L. Paul Bremer is to discuss the new political structures with coalition officials today.
Meanwhile, two American soldiers were wounded and two Iraqis killed in a grenade attack yesterday as unrest and tension persisted in Iraq.
Witnesses said that a group of Iraqis threw a grenade at an American vehicle in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Azamiya district of Baghdad, Agence France-Presse news service reported.
The coalition has blamed loyalists to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Muslim regime for most of the anti-U.S. attacks that have occurred since Saddam was ousted from power in April.
The last deadly incident came Thursday, when a U.S. soldier was fatally shot on a main road north of Baghdad.
Twenty-three U.S. soldiers have died in fighting or accidents in Iraq since May 1, when President Bush declared the war effectively over.
“The war has not ended. These operations happened in a combat zone, and it is war,” said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of coalition ground troops in Iraq.