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Bremer offers compromise in Iraq, but not on deadline

Saturday, January 17, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The United States will revise its plan to create self-rule in Iraq, the U.S. administrator said Friday after consultations with President Bush, but he rejected postponement of a June 30 deadline for ending the occupation and handing over power.

"The Iraqi people are anxious to get sovereignty back, and we are not anxious to extend our period of occupation," the administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said after conferring at the White House with Bush and senior U.S. officials.

In an ironic shift, the administration will seek the help of the United Nations, whose role in Iraq the president and his top aides sought to keep at a minimum before and during the U.S.-led war to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Offering to refine the American plan's way of choosing an interim Iraqi government through a complex system of caucuses in the country's 18 provinces, Bremer said, "There obviously are a number of ways in which these kind of elections can go forward."

Prominent Shiite clerics are demanding direct elections for the provisional legislature to choose an interim government and direct elections also on whether tens of thousands of American peacekeeping troops can remain to help maintain order. The demand puts the United States in the awkward position of arguing against direct elections while saying its goal is a democratic Iraq.

Bremer said he had no "fundamental disagreement" with Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has repeatedly pressed the United States for elections.

Three elections are planned next year, and "we need to try to find a way to go forward with a transparent and representative fashion" to choose an interim government, Bremer said.

He said, however, that he doubted direct elections could be arranged before the scheduled June 30 hand-off to an Iraqi government, and he made a point of asserting that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has concurred with that finding.

Underscoring the firm U.S. stand on the deadline, Bremer said he expected to return to private life on July 1, with the U.S. occupation ended.

Threatening the U.S. blueprint, an aide to the ayatollah said Thursday in Kuwait that if al-Sistani's advice were to be rejected, a Muslim fatwa, or edict, would be issued to deny legitimacy to any council elected under the American plan. Even some Sunnis respect the Shiite al-Sistani, said the aide, Mohammed Baqir al-Mehri.

Another al-Sistani associate, Abdel Hakim al-Safi, wrote a letter to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's main coalition partner, accusing the coalition of seeking to deny Iraqis their legitimate aspirations.

"We know that all the excuses you used to hinder the elections are not based on reality," the letter said.

On Thursday in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, where most British troops are, a crowd they estimated at up to 30,000 turned out in the streets Thursday chanting: "No, no to America; yes, yes to al-Sistani."

The United States wants regional caucuses, at least some of whose members would be appointed, to choose a new Iraqi parliament, which would then select an administration. The Bush administration says security is too poor and voter records too meager for direct elections now.

The clerics want elections, fearing the caucuses might be rigged by the traditionally dominant Sunni Muslims to keep Shiites out of power. Al-Sistani and other clerics wield great influence among Iraq's Shiites, believed to comprise about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.

Bremer and an Iraqi delegation led by Adnan Pachachi, current chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, plan to confer with Annan on Monday in New York.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met three times Friday with Bremer, told a Dutch television network, "The U.N. can be helpful in helping to bring all parties together to support the Nov. 15 plan."

Powell said the Shiites were not against the plan, and the United States was in "good conversations with the Shiite leadership."

Like Bremer, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, offered to refine the mechanism for selecting an interim government but insisted on sticking with the plan's framework and the unelected temporary government it specifies by July 1.

"Obviously, there are discussions about ways to refine or improve that agreement, but we're working within the framework of the Nov. 15 agreement," McClellan said.


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