- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

President Bush said yesterday that the acceleration of the transfer of power to the Iraqi people would not lead to a premature U.S. withdrawal. The United States, he said, will stay until the nation is “free and peaceful.”

He made this promise as the Iraqi Governing Council leaders said they have secured agreement from Iraq’s chief U.S. administrator to establish a provisional government next summer that will be in place for the next 18 months to two years. It likely would be selected not elected.

Under the plan, within two or three months Iraq would be run under a set of “state fundamental laws” being drawn up by council members, before a permanent constitution is drafted and ratified by an elected government, according to Iraqi sources close to the 24-member council.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday praised the Bush administration’s decision to speed up a transfer of power. The United Nations has imposed a Dec. 15 deadline for the council to set a timetable to draft a permanent constitution and elect new leaders.

“The transfer of power to the Iraqis has always been my position,” Mr. Annan said in Bolivia. “This is a positive development.”

Congressional Democrats, who weeks ago pushed for the Bush administration to speed up the transfer of power, have criticized the president for his urging the council to pick up the pace. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said Mr. Bush’s new efforts amount to “cutting and running.”

But the president said this is not so. “Look, we will stay until the job is done, and the job is for Iraq to be free and peaceful,” he said. “A free and peaceful Iraq will have historic consequences.”

As Iraqis move into position to take more control of their country, Mr. Bush said it is appropriate to hand over that power quickly. “We will work with the Governing Council to speed up the political process in a rational way … on the belief that we’ve made a lot of progress on the ground and that the Governing Council is better prepared to take more responsibility,” he said.

Even as the president spoke, U.S. troops stepped up their campaign yesterday against Iraqi insurgents, mounting air assaults with laser-guided missiles near the Syrian border and in Baghdad.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said a handover of power to Iraqis will occur on a separate timetable from the withdrawal of U.S. forces. “It does not mean we would physically leave the country any sooner,” Mr. Rumsfeld told troops Thursday in Guam. “What it means is the Iraqis would begin to take on a greater portion of responsibility for governing themselves sooner.”

While the president in September said a transfer of power can come only after Iraq has created a constitution and elected new leaders, senior administration officials have proposed the creation of a panel of Iraqi leaders to move more swiftly to empower the Iraqi people.

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.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice Thursday said a major sticking point is the drafting of a permanent constitution, which some council members say could take as long as three years.

According to a plan divulged by the Iraqi sources, a new interim government would be established by next summer that would adhere to the “state fundamental laws” and stay until a democratic election is held. Only then would a final, permanent constitution be approved.

The “laws” will declare Iraq to be moving toward a federal system of government, in effect satisfying the aspirations of Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south, while also ensuring representation for all ethnic and religious groups, the sources said.

Islam would be acknowledged as a major, but not the only, source of the country’s law, while freedom of religious worship and the protection of religious and minority rights would be assured, they said.

Until the elections, the current council would remain in place and would acquire new and enhanced powers “automatically as it gets stronger,” according to the sources. In turn, it would choose a smaller executive council, probably a slightly expanded version of the current nine-person “presidency” that gives each member a one-month turn as leader of the council.

“Until now this presidency has been hardly functional, but the new executive would in effect run the country with Mr. Bremer having an effective veto and offering American advice and support,” one source said of L. Paul Bremeer, the U.S. adminstrator in Iraq.

“Some of us have been calling it the Afghan model — but on a much larger scale,” said the source, referring to the installation of Aghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai well before elections were held.

The Iraqi sources said Mr. Bremer had carried these ideas to Washington and that considerable work and drafting had already taken place. Mr. Bremer, like Mr. Bush, had been pressing for a formal constitution to precede any elections but now seems reconciled to reversing that procedure.

Paul Martin reported from London.

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