Leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council on Friday tentatively endorsed the outlines of a new framework for transferring power from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government as early as June.
The plan, which was under discussion in Washington this week, would attempt to transform the unwieldy 24-member council into a more efficient executive body that might be headed by a single person or a small group. The plan also calls for the creation of a legislative assembly of as many as 200 members. And it would depart from previous plans by delaying the drafting of an Iraqi constitution until after the formation of the interim government.
The democratic election of the drafters of the constitution has been a firm demand of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the religious leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority -- a process that would delay creation of a government for many months.
The agreement reached Friday by the nine members of the Governing Council who share its rotating presidency must be discussed and approved by the full council, which will begin talks this morning.
If adopted, the accord would be presented, possibly within the next few days, to the United Nations Security Council, well ahead of the Dec. 15 deadline set by the Security Council for the submission of a timetable for writing a constitution and holding elections.
Iraq's civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority, participated in Friday night's sessions fresh from hastily arranged meetings with President Bush in Washington this week. Several people at the Friday night discussions said that both the Americans and the Iraqis felt they were moving toward a more effective arrangement than the one now in place.
"We feel great, we feel very good. We don't have to write a constitution while we are under occupation or postpone the transfer of sovereignty for two to three years," said Adel Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the country's leading Shiite Muslim political parties.
The proposal being discussed is a radical departure from the plan put forth by Bremer months ago. That envisioned the appointment of a constitutional drafting committee and the writing of a constitution as the first step to electing a government.
The timetable for Bremer's plan appeared likely to drag well into 2005. After the emergency meetings in Washington this week, the Bush administration endorsed alternatives, one of which was the replacement of the largely advisory Governing Council with a full-fledged interim government, which would allow the U.S. to sharply reduce its visibility in the country.
The Governing Council, which has the power to appoint interim ministers and recommend broad policies to the coalition, was created in July after nine weeks of negotiations between leading Iraqis and Bremer. Since then, the U.S.-backed body -- composed largely of formerly expatriate Shiite, ethnic Kurd and exiled Sunni Muslim opposition leaders -- has failed to make several key decisions, including whether to elect or appoint the constitution's drafters.
Meanwhile, attacks on American soldiers and other coalition troops have escalated sharply.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by both the council and the Coalition Provisional Authority is that Iraqis see them as outsiders who have put their own interests at the fore. Some officials worry that the new framework could face the same difficulty in gaining acceptance by the populace.
Most of the members of the Governing Council lived in exile for years, and some are seen as Iraqis in name only or as having divided loyalties between their native country and their homes in Europe and the United States.
Further undercutting progress has been the growing strength of the anti-American insurgency, which has created an atmosphere of nervous uncertainty among Iraqis about whether those seeking to drive out the U.S.-led coalition might gain the upper hand. Although the uneasiness is most noticeable in Baghdad, it is increasingly present in other major cities in the country where the sounds of automatic weapons, bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars have become a violent backbeat to daily life.
The Bush administration's shift on Iraqi sovereignty was disclosed after Bremer spent two days early in the week meeting with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and others.
At a news conference Friday, Bush said he sent Bremer back "with the instructions that we will work with the Governing Council to speed up the political process in a rational way."
"We've made a lot of progress on the ground, [and] the Governing Council is better prepared to take more responsibility," the president said.
Bush stressed that the administration would remain in Iraq until it had vanquished the former regime of Saddam Hussein, several thousand of whose members now appear to be engaged in a guerrilla war against Westerners. However, he did not answer the question of whether the Americans would stay until Hussein was captured.
The Coalition Provisional Authority provided no details late Friday about Bremer's discussions with the council members.
"Ambassador Bremer has had intensive discussions with the administration in Washington and now he is back in Baghdad in intensive discussions with the Governing Council. Some of those discussions began this evening, and we expect them to continue into the weekend," said Bremer spokesman Dan Senor.
The discussion Friday outlined a rough timetable under which the new plan would be presented to the U.N. Under the proposal, the Governing Council would draw up a package of laws by March under which an interim government would function.
The council would have to decide on rules to guide its work, such as whether to select a single president or perhaps an executive body with three members. Most agree that the current arrangement, in which the presidency circulates among nine members, is unwieldy and inefficient.
The council would probably also form committees responsible for overseeing various ministries, much as different committees in the U.S. Congress have jurisdiction over individual government agencies.
Between early spring and June, a legislative body would be formed, probably through a process involving a modified election in which provincial councils and possibly tribal councils hold caucuses to choose representatives.
Then in June, power would be formally handed over from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the transitional government.
Preparation would continue for an election to create a constitutional committee, which would draft that document. The election would probably occur in late 2004 or early 2005, Mahdi said. Only after that election was held and the constitution was complete -- a process likely to take several months -- would elections be held to form a permanent government.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.