New efforts to create a provisional government in Iraq may be fraught with problems, but for President Bush and Iraqi leaders, they provide an alternative to the prospect of further deterioration of security and to the eroding legitimacy of the U.S. occupation government.
Plans to put power quickly into the hands of Iraqis could lessen opposition to the continued presence of U.S. troops, but come with the risk that the new government would be too weak to hold the country together.
Civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, fresh from meeting with Bush in Washington this week, is expected to sit down with the 24 members of the Iraqi Governing Council in coming days to hammer out a plan that would give Iraqi leaders more control of the government while allowing additional time to draft a constitution.
Bremer, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority, previously opposed turning over power to an interim body until the adoption of a constitution that would give a new government legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and the world.
But the White House, frustrated by the slow progress in establishing a functioning government and stung by escalating attacks on U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, is now leaning toward arrangements that echo proposals advanced months ago by France, Germany and Russia.
"We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country," Bush told reporters at the White House on Thursday. "And so, Ambassador Bremer, with my instructions, is going back to talk to the Governing Council to develop a strategy."
Administration officials acknowledged that it was a significant change in course, but as one official put it: "The important thing is that the principles and goals have not changed. The endgame is still a constitution, a free election and the restoration of sovereignty."
Council members who advocate the creation of a provisional government say it will cut back the U.S. military role in Iraq, give Iraqis responsibility for providing security and reduce the number of American casualties.
Iraqi officials say they believe that the Bush administration's newfound willingness to hand over power appears to be driven in part by the approaching U.S. presidential election.
"That's a very important factor," Governing Council member Mahmoud Othman said. "They don't talk about it directly, but it is very well understood. This will be a formula they can sell to the American people."
U.S. officials say they expect substantial numbers of U.S. troops to be in Iraq a year from now when Americans go to the polls, but they hope that Bush will be able to show that the number of American troops in the country is dropping.
Bremer's abrupt visit to Washington and the change in White House strategy were prompted by a looming Dec. 15 deadline for the Governing Council to inform the United Nations of its timetable for adopting a constitution. U.S. officials said Bremer was returning to Iraq with several options.
National security advisor Condoleezza Rice, who also met with Bremer during his brief trip, said it was important to find ways to accelerate the transfer of authority to the Iraqi people.
"They are clamoring for it, they are, we believe, ready for it, and they have very strong ideas about how that might be done," Rice said.
A plan under consideration by the Iraqi Governing Council calls for dividing the panel into legislative and executive branches.
"All these things have to be agreed upon," council member Adnan Pachachi said. "But I think we are all agreed on the necessity of doing this in two stages -- have a provisional interim government with extensive powers and at the same time prepare properly for the constitutional process."
According to one proposal, elections would be held to expand the council to 100 members, broadening its base and including constituencies that are not now represented. This new assembly would then elect either a prime minister or an executive board to run the country until a constitution could be adopted and elections held.
By turning over powers to the Iraqis, the U.S. would hope to diminish resentment of the occupation and in turn face fewer attacks on coalition forces. If attacks diminished, fewer foreign troops would be needed to patrol.
Insurgents are staging about 30 attacks a day on American forces, up from about five a day in May, just after Bush declared an end to the major-combat phase of the war.
This month, Iraqis have shot down two U.S. military helicopters, killing 22 American troops. Suicide bombings have also become a fact of life in Baghdad and beyond. The latest, in heretofore peaceful Nasiriyah, killed more than 30 people, many of them Italian military police and soldiers.
At the same time, increased power for the Iraqi council carries its own risks.
"It's not an easy process of putting together institutions and trying to govern a place that has been under totalitarian rule for as long as Iraq has," Rice said Thursday.
Whether Iraq is ready for a provisional government remains to be seen. Divisions among Iraq's three main groups -- Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds -- prevented the council from electing a president earlier this year.
Nor could the panel agree on whether an executive board should consist of three or five members. In the end, the council elected nine rotating presidents who each hold the job for a month, thus limiting their effectiveness. Othman said the council would have to be more effective in the future.
"We have to choose one," he said. "A government should have one prime minister if you want people to take you seriously."
Under the proposal, the new assembly would adopt a basic law that would give it the authority to operate until a constitution was approved, including conducting a census, registering voters and holding an election to select a committee to write the constitution. Some council members also favor an election to ratify the constitution. The entire process could take up to two years, they say.
"A constitution is not something that can be done quickly and haphazardly," Pachachi said. "You have to be very careful. This is going to affect the fate of the country for generations. It's a new experiment."
The council has been asking Washington to hand over power for three months. Members argue that a provisional government will be better able than U.S. troops to stem Iraq's escalating violence. They say the perceived lack of legitimacy of the American occupation is spawning opposition to the U.S. forces -- a trend that they say can be reversed if Iraqis are given power.
Some council members say a provisional government can modify Bremer's controversial decision to disband the Iraqi army and mobilize thousands of former soldiers to restore order and guard the borders.
"We want the American troops in their garrisons and off the street," said Qubad Talabani, an aide to his father, Jalal, who is this month's council president. "We don't want them targeted the way they are being targeted. They did their job in liberating the country, for which we are eternally grateful. But now the responsibility should be on our shoulders to rebuild the country."
Paddock reported from Baghdad and McManus from Washington.