Two top Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish leaders met Thursday in a symbolic, and potentially formidable, challenge to the U.S.-led occupation authorities' plan to appoint an interim national government.
"We want an elected administration, not an imposed one," said Abdelaziz Hakim, the brother of Shiite leader Mohammed Bakr Hakim, the host of Kurdish chief Massoud Barzani in this city considered holy by Iraq's Shiite majority.
He warned that "many problems would be caused" if the occupation authorities pressed ahead with a nonelected council in the face of opposition by Iraqi political parties.
The meeting here set the stage for what could be a powerful political alliance between the two groups that enjoy by far the widest grass-roots support: Hakim's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party. If the two groups stand united, the occupation authorities could find themselves under immense pressure to change their plans or risk alienating nearly three-quarters of Iraq's population.
"It's time to play hardball," said Hoshyar Zabari, a senior advisor to Barzani.
Occupation authorities Sunday announced that they were abandoning their plan of letting a large national conference of Iraqis select an interim government and would instead appoint 25 to 30 "representative" Iraqis to a council that would, in turn, nominate Iraqis to serve in senior ministry positions.
The senior occupation official who briefed reporters about the new plan said it would have the advantage of moving a government into place quickly. But critics say that if the council members are handpicked by the U.S. and Britain, confidence in an interim government would be undermined.
The dispute comes as occupation forces are under tremendous pressure to get Iraq moving again, and many Iraqis argue that it will take a functioning government to give people a sense of security, restore basic services and get ministries back to work.
Barzani, whose group controls half of northern Iraq, made the trip to the holy city of Najaf to confer with Iraq's highest Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as well as Mohammed Bakr Hakim, who is both one of the country's main Shiite politicians and an ayatollah, or senior cleric.
Hakim and Barzani stopped short of issuing a direct challenge to the chief U.S. civil administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, whom they will meet for further talks today. But they clearly have begun positioning themselves to take a harder stand should a compromise over the role of Iraqis in establishing an interim administration remain elusive.
"We want to send the message that we, as Iraqi leaders, have a lot of weight and untapped resources," said Zabari, the Barzani advisor.
While Barzani and Hakim are keen to avoid a direct confrontation with the occupation authorities, they discussed what sort of opposition could be launched if they fail to convince Bremer to make concessions.
"At this stage we're discussing to see how far we can cooperate," Barzani said at a news conference. "Our next move will depend on how much understanding we can get."
Earlier, officials of a former exile group, Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, indicated that "positive discussions" were underway that might result in a compromise satisfactory to Iraqi political parties and occupation officials. Nabeel Musawi, a political advisor to Chalabi, said the compromise would involve having political parties nominate members to the political council.