With surging violence slowing his administration's efforts to reconstruct Iraq, President Bush sent the country's U.S. civilian administrator back to Baghdad on Wednesday with a message for the fractious Iraqi Governing Council: Form a functioning government quickly.
There was a clear sense of urgency at the White House, where Bush spent more than two hours in meetings with L. Paul Bremer III, head of the provisional authority organizing the reconstruction. The Governing Council, which Bremer appointed this summer, has little more than a month to meet a U.N. deadline for setting up a process that would lead to full Iraqi sovereignty.
"We are obviously in a very important period," Bremer told reporters as he left the White House, just hours after a bombing in Iraq killed at least 26 people in the southern city of Nasiriyah. "I'll be taking a message [to the council] from the president that he remains steadfast in his determination to defeat terrorism in Iraq and steadfast in his determination to give the Iraqis authority over their country."
Bremer, who was called to Washington on short notice for the consultations, refused to disclose the details of Bush's message. But a source familiar with the talks said Bremer would propose several scenarios for speeding the establishment of Iraqi sovereignty. The idea, the source said, is to avoid imposing a solution on the council and to instead let the 24 members pick and implement the plan they feel is best.
"I'm going to go back and discuss the various ideas the Governing Council has put forward," Bremer told reporters. "After all, they're the Iraqis. It's their country. We want to encourage the Iraqis to have more responsibility for their own country. They will make a decision, and at that point we will have something to say."
Among the scenarios Bremer is expected to discuss with the council is setting up a provisional government -- similar to the interim government in Afghanistan headed by President Hamid Karzai -- that would draw up a constitution and hold elections. The U.S. could then turn control over to the provisional government. Previously, the Bush administration had said it would relinquish control only after a constitution had been adopted and a leader chosen in national elections.
Asked whether the administration was contemplating establishing a provisional government before elections, a U.S. official said: "Sure. Absolutely. That's something that we're deciding."
But both Bremer and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell indicated there were no plans to disband the Governing Council.
"This is difficult work that we are at," Powell said. "To take 24 individuals, put them together and give them this kind of responsibility requires patience as they develop patterns of work and patterns of operation, as they staff themselves for these important responsibilities.... We are committed to the Governing Council, and we intend to help them in every way that we can."
The administration is under increasing pressure to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis more quickly. It believes that once a provisional government is in place, it will win broader support internationally and from Iraqis themselves.
Establishing such a government would also allow the United States to begin drawing down its military and civilian presence in Iraq -- a move expected to take the momentum out of the insurgency.
Under a U.N. resolution authorizing international assistance for the U.S.-led occupation, the Governing Council has until Dec. 15 to draw up a process and timetable for forming a new government.
"Clearly, there is a concern that there is a deadline out there of Dec. 15 in which the Governing Council is to field a plan to the U.N. to go forward," a Defense Department official said on condition of anonymity. "It's Nov. 12 today. That's not a lot of time."
The sense of urgency was heightened in Washington by Wednesday's bombing in Nasiriyah and the leak of a new, stark assessment by the CIA's station chief in Baghdad suggesting the security situation continues to deteriorate.
Sources familiar with the top-secret document said it warned that ordinary Iraqis were losing confidence in the coalition's ability to stave off the growing insurgency.
The document also reportedly cites a sharp rise in the number of attacks on coalition targets and points to some seemingly insurmountable problems, including an inability to seal off the country's borders to foreign fighters.
"I think there's a realization that there's a major security problem," said a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the report. "You have these unfavorable trend lines with regard to security incidents."
The occupation faces a closing window in which to turn matters around, said the official, who asked not to be named. One of the basic issues, he said, is "whether reconstruction ... can improve fast enough that it outpaces curves of frustration and violence. If the curves go in the other direction ... that's bad news."
The report was circulated in Washington on Monday, intelligence officials said, and represents the assessment of the agency's senior officer in the field. The existence of the document, known as an AARDWOLF in intelligence parlance, was first reported by Knight-Ridder newspapers Wednesday.
A former intelligence official who still deals with Iraq said such reports are generally produced in response to a specific request from the administration or agency leaders, or are generated by the station chief in cases of "a crisis or a major shift" in a situation.
"I think in this case you can say things were seriously getting worse," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Other former CIA officials, however, said AARDWOLF reports aren't always precipitated by a sudden downturn. "I don't know that it indicates a dire turn of events," said Mike Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. Vickers is a former CIA case officer.
A White House spokesman said the administration welcomed the input from the agency. "We want to hear the direct views from the field, and the president has said that we face a lot of challenges in Iraq," he said. "It's a tough situation, but we will prevail. Our commanders will adapt to the enemy, and we are committed to staying the course." He declined to discuss the document, citing its classified nature.
A U.S. official said the document did not trigger the White House's decision to summon Bremer to Washington.
"He was coming back here before people even saw this thing," the official said. "I know people who were involved in asking Bremer to come back did not have this in mind when they did."
Other officials insisted that the hasty summoning of Bremer this week had as much to do with top officials' schedules as with concern over the approaching U.N. deadline or the deteriorating security situation.
After a formal National Security Council meeting with Bremer, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld left Washington for a six-day trip to Guam, Japan and South Korea. When Rumsfeld returns, Bush will be on his way to Britain for a formal state visit and consultations with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Regardless, it was evident that the combination of accelerating violence and decelerating political reconstruction had increased frustration in Washington.
"Clearly, the administration's policy has run into a dead end," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the conservative Nixon Center in Washington. "The parallel increase in violence and failure to jump-start the constitutional process bodes very ill for making Iraq a showpiece of democracy in the Middle East."
Since summer, the British have been talking about the possibility of changing tactics and installing an Afghan-style provisional government to take the reins until a constitution can be drafted and formal elections held.
During the negotiations for the U.N. resolution, which was passed in mid-October, British Ambassador to the U.N. Emyr Jones Parry helped clinch the unanimous support by inserting language that left the door open to such a plan. The U.S. grudgingly agreed to it at the last moment, viewing that open door as a possible escape hatch.
U.S. officials said the administration had been reluctant to agree to the Dec. 15 deadline, but accepted it as part of a compromise that won passage of the resolution.
Times staff writers Paul Richter, Esther Schrader and Greg Miller in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.