- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

President Bush and his national-security team yesterday told Iraq’s U.S. civil administrator to return to Baghdad and instill a sense of urgency in the Iraqi Governing Council, which has one month to set a timetable on writing a new constitution and transferring power to an elected government.

After a hastily called White House meeting, in which the president made it clear that he wants to see results from the U.S.-anointed council members, administrator L. Paul Bremer said he would convey the administration’s strategy for handing over power to the Iraqi people.

“I will now go back and reflect the president’s and his advisers’ views on the path forward. We’ll discuss them with the Governing Council. And as I said, when the Governing Council has made a decision on how to go forward, they will make that public, I’m sure,” Mr. Bremer said in the White House driveway.

Several White House officials said one of the models for Iraq is Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai was installed as his nation’s leader before elections took place. Under that scenario, Iraq would hold elections by summer 2004 to pick a chief executive to assume power over the nation, as well as to select a new governing body to draft a constitution.

Others, however, noted that Iraq does not have a leader as singularly suited for the top post as Mr. Karzai was in Afghanistan.

Other options under discussion are the creation of a smaller body within the 24-person Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), perhaps a dozen or fewer, to take charge, or the selection of a single member to lead the council, according to administration sources.

For his part, Mr. Bremer dodged questions on exactly what the administration’s strategy is, saying only that he had “made proposals to transfer more authority to the Iraqi Governing Council.”

But he disputed the notion that the IGC is failing and said that the president stands firmly committed to the council’s efforts.

“I’ll be taking them a message from the president that he remains steadfast in his determination to defeat terrorism in Iraq and steadfast in his determination to give the Iraqis authority over their country, authority they’re already beginning to assume very quickly in the area of security and in the area of running the Iraqi ministries,” Mr. Bremer said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made it clear that the Bush administration was looking for more results in Baghdad.

“We are looking at all sorts of ideas, and we do want to accelerate the pace of reform. We want to accelerate our work with respect to putting a legal basis under the new Iraqi government,” said Mr. Powell, who sat in on the Bremer meeting, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Sources in the White House said the abrupt nature of the meeting does not indicate White House dissatisfaction with Mr. Bremer, just that the president wanted to work face to face on solutions.

Mr. Powell also gave no indication that Mr. Bremer’s job was in danger or that U.S. officials are looking to dissolve the Iraqi Governing Council.

“This is difficult work,” he said. “To take 24 individuals, put them together and give them this kind of responsibility requires patience as they develop patterns of work and patterns of operation.”

But rumors persist in Iraq that a major administrative shake-up is under way.

The Baghdad daily Az-Zaman, which is close to several top members of the IGC, reported that a plan is under way to “purge” the council, which has come under fire for moving too slowly to write a constitution and prepare for a permanent Iraqi authority.

The IGC’s foreign minister yesterday urged the United States not to “change horses in midstream.”

“The council and the coalition are in the same boat, and we should not lose our focus and direction,” Hoshiyar Zobari said in an interview. “Changing horses in midstream is not a good policy.”

Mr. Zobari said the council was “confident we will meet the Dec. 15 deadline” set by the United Nations in the recent Security Council resolution for setting out a timetable for designing a constitution and mapping out the path to elections.

The urgent White House meeting came amid news of a suicide bomb attack on an Italian base in southern Iraq that killed 18 Italians and eight Iraqis. November is on pace to become the deadliest month since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with nearly 40 U.S. soldiers killed in just the first 11 days.

In addition, a new, classified CIA report warns that Iraqis are losing faith in the U.S.-led coalition’s ability to restore security to the nation.

The report also warns that no Iraqi political institution or ethnic leader has shown the aptitude to govern the country or even preside over drafting a constitution or holding an election.

The IGC has been stalled for weeks debating several proposals, including a scenario in which the council would draft an interim constitution and select a temporary president to lead the government until a formal constitution is adopted. Some members have said it might take as long as three years to draft and pass a final constitution.

Asked about the report, Mr. Bremer said: “I think the situation with the Iraqi public is frankly not easy to quantify. We’ve looked at polls. We’ve talked to people. Obviously, the terrorists are trying to encourage the Iraqi people to believe that the United States is not going to stay the course. They’ve killed mostly Iraqis.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan sidestepped questions on how the administration will compel the IGC to move swiftly, even refusing to say whether the president’s stated belief that the only process for an orderly transfer of sovereignty in Iraq is “constitution, elections and then the transfer of authority” is still operative.

But the spokesman did say that the administration is prepared to be flexible and alter its strategy if that is necessary.

“Just like you have to adapt and adjust on the security front to meet the enemy, you need to be willing to adjust and adapt to circumstances on the ground, in terms of reconstruction and in terms of the political front,” Mr. McClellan said, adding that the White House thinks the IGC can meet the Dec. 15 deadline.

Mr. Bremer said the decision on how to proceed is up to the Iraqi Governing Council, a view not repudiated by the White House.

“It doesn’t matter what my options are, what matters is what does the Governing Council think. … The Governing Council itself has a number of plans they’ve been discussing,” he said. “They’re not my options, they’re options put forward by the Governing Council.”

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reaffirmed his call for a quick hand-over of power to Iraqis after the latest bombing.

“There’s no change in our position,” Mr. Annan’s spokesman Fred Eckhard said at the U.N. headquarters in New York. “A clear timeline for the transfer of authority to Iraqis, we think, would help reduce tensions somewhat.”

Paul Martin, reporting from London, and David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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