In its latest shift, the U.S.-led occupation authority moved Friday to satisfy critics by offering to appoint an interim Iraqi council that has the power to select government ministers and international representatives.
The U.S. was responding to criticism by seven former Iraqi opposition political groups of its plan to unilaterally appoint an interim government body whose role would be advisory. The U.S. had said it was taking the action to speed up the reconstruction process, but in doing so would have denied the Iraqi groups' leaders power to choose government officials.
Top U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III presented Friday's compromise during a late-night meeting with leaders of the Iraqi political groups.
The leaders said that they tentatively welcomed the plan as a step toward empowering Iraqis in the interim administration but that key concerns remained.
"There's a recognition that Iraqis should have more power," said Hoshyar Zabari, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, one of two main Kurdish groups. "There's some movement from the original plan, but still no decision has been taken."
The seven groups, which include two Shiite organizations, were angered by Bremer's decision last month to cancel a planned convention of Iraqis that would have elected an interim government, and to instead appoint a council of 25 to 30 Iraqis to advise the U.S.-run administration.
The most important concession Friday was a plan to enable the proposed council to appoint interim government ministers.
The council would also establish special commissions to advise the U.S.-led authority on pressing matters such as educational curriculum and oil policy. These commissions, a senior U.S. official explained during a news conference Friday, would give the panel "an important policymaking role."
The new proposal would also give the council at least a semblance of responsibility for Iraq's foreign policy -- its representatives would attend international meetings and serve as envoys to foreign governments.
"They will not be ambassadors of the state of Iraq," said the official, who requested anonymity. "But they will be the voice of the Iraqi people through this transitional stage."
The Iraqi group leaders present at the meeting Friday said Bremer conveyed a message from President Bush in support of a free and democratic Iraq, reiterating a commitment to a government selected by the Iraqi people.
The proposed council would include women, a representative of the country's Christian community, and tribal leaders.
The proposal still gives the U.S.-led administration final say over the council's political makeup, with the leaders of the seven political groups serving as the nucleus.
In revising the plan, Bremer would have the interim administration evolve from consultations between the proposed council and the occupation authority.
"An election process right now would lead to more instability, not less," said a senior reconstruction official. "A free and open democratic process [in this climate] would be open to intervention by extremists."
But Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who make up about two-thirds of the population and suffered extensively under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-dominated regime, want a voice in postwar Iraq that reflects their majority status. To that end, Shiite leaders have pressed for elections to determine the interim administration, believing that the Bremer plan was designed to dilute their power. Despite the revisions, they are still not wholly satisfied with the plan.
"This is a step in the right direction, but we think we need more," said Hamid Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main Shiite opposition group.
"We'll continue the dialogue, but the important point is to have an Iraqi government selected by Iraqis."
Bayati carried a message to Bremer from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation's highest Shiite religious authority, calling for a constitution written by elected Iraqis. The Bremer plan envisages a constitutional convention where appointed Iraqis would draft a new Iraqi constitution in the months ahead, paving the way for a general election.
Once formed, an interim administration would give Iraqis a public role in running their nation's affairs. U.S. administrators hope that this sense of involvement will defuse some of the anger that is undermining the American-led occupation, especially in cities in Sunni-dominated central Iraq, where small-scale attacks continue against U.S. troops.
Early Thursday, one U.S. soldier was killed and five others were wounded in Fallouja, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, when they were ambushed while finishing a patrol. The city has become a focus of attacks on U.S. troops, prompting the military to send reinforcements this week.
Despite fiery sermons at mosques around Fallouja on Friday painting the U.S. troops as crusaders besieging Muslim believers and urging residents to rise up, the city was quiet through early afternoon.
The only obvious display of anger at the U.S. presence was on the main street, where a band of young men chipped away with their hands at a crumbling police station that American soldiers had inhabited last week.
"People want to destroy everything they used and touched," said Arkan Hamid Jumeili, 32. "We refuse to accept them here."
In Baghdad, about 300 tribesmen from southern Iraq demonstrated in front of a central square where U.S. troops are stationed, accusing American forces of unjustly detaining a tribal leader who was arrested three weeks ago in a town near Nasiriyah.
The tribesmen demanded the release of their leader, who they said had been falsely charged with involvement in Hussein's regime.
"We got rid of Saddam, and now the U.S. comes and dishonors," said Nadhim Salman Sagman, 61. "We want freedom and justice. We thought the Americans came here" for a just cause.
In Al Kut, a U.S. Navy engineer died and three others were injured Friday when unexploded ordnance they were handling blew up, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.