- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Governing Council members struggled to reach an agreement with U.S. and U.N. officials yesterday over who should serve as Iraq’s titular leader after June 30. A final decision was expected early this week.

With security fears coloring the selection process, gunmen ambushed a convoy of three sport utility vehicles in the capital, killing at least two Western contractors, witnesses said. Some witnesses said three others had been kidnapped.

Violence also continued in the southern cities of Najaf and Kufa despite a cease-fire negotiated last week with Mahdi’s Army, the militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The top candidates for the post of Iraq’s president are Sunni Muslims Adnan Pachachi — a former exile favored by the Americans — and Governing Council President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, who typically wears traditional Arab dress and has been critical of U.S. actions in the country.

“The decision has been delayed until [today],” an aide to a council member said yesterday.

“It seems that Dr. Pachachi has the support of the U.S. gov ernment and the [Coalition Provisional Authority], while a majority of council members support [Mr. al-Yawer],” the aide said after meetings between the CPA and the Iraqi leadership.

Real power after the transfer of sovereignty on June 30 is expected to lie with the prime minister, a post already given to Shi’ite political leader Iyad Allawi with the unanimous consent of the Governing Council. Decisions on who will make up the nation’s Cabinet also are near completion, according to the aide.

But the political machinations were overshadowed yesterday by the sight of youthful Baghdad residents dancing joyfully as rescuers dragged the bodies of the two private contractors from their burning SUVs in the capital’s Shoala district.

Some witnesses told the Associated Press that the attackers dragged several more live Westerners from the cars and drove off with them. Others said the surviving contractors seized a car at gunpoint and used it to make their escape.

A U.S. contractor working for DynCorp was reported to have been fatally shot while driving his vehicle, but it was not clear whether that was part of the same incident.

On the military front, authorities reported that two soldiers were wounded in fighting in Najaf, where a cease-fire with Sheik al-Sadr was negotiated last week.

CNN, which has a reporter embedded with 1st Armored Division troops in Kufa, said a “major firefight” broke out when soldiers tried to secure a police station last night. The soldiers told CNN that it was the most intense fighting in the area in the past six weeks.

Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi, who was in Najaf yesterday, told the AP that he met with al-Sadr aides last night and had worked out a “detailed plan” for implementing the truce, which he would present to U.S. and Iraqi officials today.

“We ask both sides to stop hostilities,” said Mr. Chalabi, a Shi’ite whose offices were raided last week by Iraqi and U.S. security forces.

The final designation of a president, prime minister, two vice presidents and a Cabinet will conclude weeks of discussions led by United Nations’ envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was invited by the United States to help form the new government.

The Governing Council pre-empted part of the expected announcement by declaring Mr. Allawi — who has strong ties to former regime military officers and the CIA — as their choice for prime minister on Saturday.

Mr. Allawi, a former Ba’ath Party member and a Shi’ite, is not widely popular among Iraqis. But he is welcomed by those who think that he may be able to turn around the security situation and get the country’s economy back on track.

“I hate him, but he is a strong man and may be what we need,” said Muhammad, a former taxi driver now working as a security guard. He declined to give his last name.

Mr. Pachachi also described Mr. Allawi as the right man for the job.

“I think we need a strong hand at the helm at present to deal with the problems of security and terrorism,” he told ABC’s “This Week” news show.

“I don’t know for sure what kind of ties he had. … But I imagine somebody who feels that he’s serving his country and wants to remove this regime, he may do it, he may, as they say, cooperate with the devil,” Mr. Pachachi said.

Many Iraqis also resent being led by returning exiles, particularly those who received funding from the United States, feeling that they did not suffer through the years of deprivation and oppression under Saddam. But after months of bombings, gunfire and terrorist attacks, they are willing to give Mr. Allawi a chance.

In a nationwide survey by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, security and crime were cited as the most urgent issue for Iraqis, with the economy and jobs running a close second.

In another poll by the group, Mr. Allawi was strongly supported by only 4.8 percent of those surveyed.

That was in sharp contrast to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who enjoyed more than 51 percent support, and Sheik al-Sadr, who was strongly supported by almost 32 percent.

“Nobody is strong enough yet, but we have to try one. We have to give the chance to someone to start” getting the country back on its feet, said Jenan Awad, an interpreter in Baghdad.

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