- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2003

NEW YORK — Ahmed Chalabi, the chief of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council, yesterday sought to downplay differences with the United States over the pace of self-rule, endorsing American plans for a gradual transfer of power.

“We have no disagreement with the U.S. government. We are not at odds with the United States,” he told reporters at United Nations headquarters for the annual U.N. General Assembly debate.

“We are grateful to President Bush and working with the United States to achieve our own objective of a democratic constitution for Iraq.”

Other members of the Iraqi interim authority also sought to downplay the reported dispute with the Bush administration, and said they could probably draft a constitution — the first major step toward sovereignty — within a year.

U.S. officials have said they are not comfortable turning over power to an unelected body, even one appointed by the United States.

But France, Germany and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, among others, have advocated a swifter hand-over, saying that the Iraqis ought to rule themselves.

Mr. Chalabi’s remarks came shortly after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Senate hearing that the administration’s intention is to turn Iraq over to its people “through a constitution and elections and then passing of sovereignty at a pace as rapidly as is reasonable.”

The U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, has advocated a seven-point plan in which Iraqis would write and ratify a constitution and hold nationwide elections before the coalition hands over full authority.

Mr. Chalabi has strong supporters in the Pentagon but is also believed to have strong critics at the State Department and CIA. Under questioning, Mr. Chalabi — who holds the rotating presidency of the council in September — declined to say outright that he agreed with that assessment or endorsed the seven-point plan.

But his emphasis on no disagreements with the United States implied just that.

He volunteered that fellow IGC member Aqila al-Hashimi, who was severely wounded in an assassination attempt last weekend, “is in very critical condition.”

The United States is facing resistance from France, and to a lesser extent, Germany and Russia, in an effort to bring in international troops and capital to stabilize and rebuild Iraq after a monthlong war and two decades of stunted development under Saddam Hussein.

Those nations are seeking a deadline for the restoration of sovereignty. But Washington has refused to set “arbitrary” dates.

“This is a gradual process,” a senior U.S. official told reporters in New York last night. “There needs to be a timetable, but it has to be realistic.”

Adnan Pachachi, a member of Iraqi Governing Council, said yesterday that it might be possible to hold a constitutional convention in Iraq by next month and ratify the document as soon as May.

“There are things that have to be done,” said Mr. Pachachi, a former foreign minister in the early years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Before the government can hold elections, he said, they will have to prepare an electoral law, take a population census, register voters, overhaul the judicial system to guarantee honest elections, regulate the formation of the political parties, assure freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

“All this will take some time,” said Mr. Pachachi, “but I hope that within seven or eight months we could have a constitution and a referendum for approval.”

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the governing council and the Americans “see eye to eye” on the timetable. “We hope we can accomplish this within a year. This is our hope, our goal. We may not achieve it 100 percent.”

The three Iraqis met yesterday with Mr. Annan to urge the United Nations to stay engaged, despite two recent car bombings aimed at scaring off the organization. Iraqi representatives have also met with the Japanese and Belgian foreign ministers here, and have kept a full appointment schedule.

The three Iraqi council members — who sat at Iraq’s table in U.N. General Assembly chambers during Tuesday’s opening speeches — noted that the country, under the IGC, has resumed its participation in the Arab League and OPEC, and hopes to rejoin the IMF and World Bank.

Members of the Iraqi council plan to meet next week with members of Congress and others in Washington to explore the thorny issue of a timetable for resuming sovereignty.

Mr. Chalabi is a former banker who founded Iraqi National Congress while in exile. He was convicted of fraud in absentia in Jordan in 1992 in a banking scandal and sentenced to 22 years in jail. He has repeatedly denied the charges.

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