- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday moved closer to supporting the creation of an interim government in Iraq before a constitution is completed, while its national security adviser said the Iraqi Governing Council must push back its timeline for drafting a national charter.

Although the president said in September that a transfer of power can come only after Iraq had a constitution and had elected new leaders, senior administration officials have proposed creating a panel of Iraqi leaders with real power.

As part of the plan, Iraq would hold elections by summer 2004 and draft an interim constitution as the United States hands over increased power, administration officials said.

Speaking a day after top U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer was summoned to Washington on short notice for urgent meetings, the president said the U.S.-anointed council will ultimately make the decision on how to move forward.

“We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country. And so Ambassador Bremer, with my instructions, is going back to talk to the Governing Council to develop a strategy. And he’ll report back after he’s consulted with the very people that — that we want to assume more responsibility,” Mr. Bush said.

But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the timeline for drafting a permanent constitution — which some council members say could take as long as three years — must be extended.

“We’re trying to be flexible and responsive to the fact that the Governing Council and other Iraqis believe that that timeline is probably longer for a permanent constitution than they believe accords with their ability to take on certain responsibilities and functions,” she said.

“And so it’s the timeline on the permanent constitution that’s really extended.”

The Iraqi Governing Council has expressed doubts about giving priority to writing a new constitution and prefers to assume the powers of a provisional government in the short term.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell echoed Miss Rice, saying the existing timetable for writing a permanent constitution “could eat up a great deal of time, more time than we think can be allowed before we start transferring sovereignty back.”

But Miss Rice said the administration’s adaptation to the situation on the ground in Iraq does not constitute a paradigm shift, as reported by many U.S. news outlets.

“It is still important that the Iraqi people have a permanent constitution. It’s still important that they have elections for a permanent government. Nothing has changed,” she said. “They are clamoring for it. They are, we believe, ready for it.”

As for the change, Miss Rice said: “Nobody has ever tried to be locked in stone about the forms … or the mechanisms by which we would try to transfer more authority.”

Senior administration officials said one of the top plans to emerge from two days of talks among Mr. Bush, Mr. Bremer and top national security advisers is for the 24-member Iraqi Governing Council to follow the model of Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai was installed as his nation’s leader well before elections were held.

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.

The president said the new plan, whichever course the council chooses, “will encourage the Iraqis to assume more responsibility,” which Iraqis are increasingly demanding.

“Ambassador Bremer sat right here yesterday and talked to me about the Iraqis’ desire to be more involved in the governance of their country. And that’s a positive development because it’s, actually, that’s what we want,” Mr. Bush told reporters yesterday in the Oval Office.

“I believe, by far the vast majority of Iraqis do understand the stakes, and do want their children to grow up in a peaceful environment, and do want their children going to a school, and do want to be able to live a free life that is prosperous.”

Despite recent setbacks and a flare-up of violence in and around Baghdad, Mr. Bush predicted “we’re going to prevail because, well, one, we got a good strategy to deal with these killers.”

Army Gen. John Abizaid, who oversees U.S. military forces in Iraq, said yesterday there are fewer than 5,000 people fighting the United States in the nation slightly larger than California. But he said they have “brutal and determined” leaders.

Mr. Bush reiterated his belief that Saddam Hussein loyalists are coordinating with foreign terrorists in an attempt to break the will of the U.S.-led coalition, a goal he said will fail.

“The goal of the terrorists, whether they be Ba’athists, or mujahideen fighters, or al Qaeda-type fighters, is to create terror and fear amongst average Iraqis — is to create the conditions where people are just so fearful for their lives that they cannot think positively about freedom. That’s their goal,” he said.

“Our goal, of course, is to continue to work with those Iraqi citizens who understand that freedom is a precious commodity, those who understand that there is a hopeful life possible, in a part of the world where a lot of hope has been diminished in the past. And that’s the struggle — that’s the struggle.”

Miss Rice said the Iraqi people are best positioned to handle the emerging problems in their nation.

“The kind of dangers that are being faced there, the kind of security circumstances and challenges that are being faced on a daily basis are going to be better dealt with by Iraqi security forces, with us in support of them, than by our coalition forces alone,” she said.

On a visit to U.S. forces in Guam today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agreed, saying the U.S. goal is to transfer responsibility for security to the Iraqi people.

“We’re trying to do it as fast as humanly possible,” he said.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report from Guam.

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