The White House scrambled Tuesday to reassure skeptics that the U.S. planned to transfer full sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, even as the Bush administration publicly disagreed with its closest ally about whether a new Iraqi government could block U.S. military operations.
A day after President Bush declared in a major speech that Iraqis would exercise authority over their own affairs, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London that Iraq’s interim government would have the right to veto specific military operations by the U.S.-led coalition, a view American officials immediately disputed. And French President Jacques Chirac told Bush in a telephone conversation that France wanted any new U.N. Security Council resolution to spell out clearly that the Iraqis would have a say over U.S.-led military operations.
The dispute over how much authority the new Iraqi government would wield came at a crucial diplomatic and political moment for the White House. While the U.S. is negotiating a Security Council resolution seen as critical for bestowing international legitimacy on the interim Iraqi administration, U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is struggling to name a government.
Among the candidates for top posts in the new government are an independent Shiite Muslim, Hussein Shahristani; an independent Sunni Muslim, Adnan Pachachi; a Kurd, Jalal Talabani; and the leader of the Shiite Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jafari; according to senior staff at the Iraqi Governing Council.
However, they cautioned that although the candidates for those jobs had been narrowed to two or three people, there was no final list. “No slate has been put forward,” said one staff member.
Barham Salih, a former prime minister of the part of Kurdistan governed by Talabani’s party, is also expected to win a top post.
Shahristani is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s chief Shiite cleric, according to people who know him, and is considered a man of great integrity, though lacking ties to political parties and without a constituency.
Although this might make him a good choice among Iraqis who distrust political parties, it also means he might have trouble getting things done in a government already being divided along sectarian lines, with many key players linked to parties.
Shahristani, an Iraqi nuclear chemist, spent 11 years in prison after refusing to help Saddam Hussein build a nuclear bomb. He escaped from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on Feb. 13, 1991.
If he becomes the new prime minister, it would be “a very good choice,” said Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a bipartisan Washington think tank.
Facing diminished diplomatic clout resulting from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the Bush administration is finding it difficult to satisfy more insistent international demands that the transfer of sovereignty leave Iraqis in charge of their security.
In a London news conference Tuesday, Blair seemed to be reassuring the French and other Security Council members when he said that the Iraqis would be allowed to block U.S. military plans.
“If there’s a political decision as to whether you go into a place like Fallouja in a particular way, that has to be done with the consent of the Iraqi government,” Blair said, in a reference to recent U.S. attacks on Sunni Muslim insurgents in that city. “The final political control remains with the Iraqi government. That’s what the transfer of sovereignty means.”
U.S. officials have insisted that after the hand-over, Iraq’s fledgling security forces will not be prepared to contend with a growing insurgency and that U.S. forces will be needed for months, possibly years, to establish order.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the U.S. did not intend to give the Iraqis authority over American operations in Iraq. He said the relationship between the interim government and coalition forces would be negotiated only after the new officials were named.
“Obviously, we would take into account whatever they might say at a political and military level,” Powell told reporters in Washington. “Ultimately, however, if it comes down to the United States armed forces protecting themselves or in some way accomplishing their mission in a way that might not be in total consonance with what the Iraqi interim government might want to do at a particular moment in time, U.S. forces remain under U.S. command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves.”
The draft U.N. resolution circulated by the U.S. and Britain on Monday does not give an interim Iraqi government explicit authority over U.S.-led military operations in Iraq.
A senior Bush administration official in Baghdad said he expected the U.S. to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi interim government in early June.
“It is a crucial issue,” said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named.
The Iraqi government, he said, will have “a seat at the table” when military decisions are made. But he bristled when asked whether that meant the Iraqis would have the explicit power to block U.S. military plans.
“We went through half a century with Germany, half a century with Japan, and we didn’t talk like that,” he said, referring to the issue of veto power.
The official, along with Powell and National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack, emphasized Tuesday that the U.S. expected to work out security with the Iraqis.
“We will be creating coordinating bodies, political coordinating bodies and military-to-military coordinating bodies,” Powell said.
“In the course of my military experience, we have been in many countries where that country obviously was sovereign, and we took into account the desires, wishes and feelings of that sovereign nation,” he said.
But one Iraqi official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said Tuesday that regardless of what was included in a Security Council resolution, “it would be a mistake for the U.S. military to carry out an operation against the will of the Iraqi government.”
U.S. plans call for more than 130,000 American troops to remain in Iraq after the June 30 hand-over, along with hundreds of U.S. officials serving as advisors in Iraqi ministries and U.S. officers training and equipping Iraqi security forces. Given the deep American influence in Iraqi affairs, Iraqis need to see as many signs of sovereignty as possible, the Iraqi official said.
The end of U.S. occupation “takes away the pretext of our enemies, who say this is an American occupation and an American looting of Iraq,” the Iraqi official said.
French diplomats are making the same point. France is taking the lead in the Security Council in pushing the U.S. to cede more authority to the Iraqis.
The U.S., said a senior administration official, has “no problem in saying the Iraqis are sovereign and therefore have a say over what happens in their territory,” but said sorting out details should not be left to the U.N.
“The idea that when you transfer sovereignty, you should specify the committees and the functioning within the Iraqi government from 12,000 miles away doesn’t quite jibe with us,” the official said.
The immediate focus of the U.N. is Brahimi’s increasingly difficult negotiations with Iraqis over which leaders will be included in the interim government.
“Mr. Brahimi is going flat out, trying to develop consensus among a broad cross-section of Iraqi leadership,” said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “And of course, the closer you get to your goal, the tougher the bargaining becomes.”
Still, Annan told reporters Tuesday that he was hopeful Brahimi would be able to announce the government by the end of the month.
One U.N. official described the political bargaining in Baghdad as “a bazaar,” with political players jockeying for places in the government. Annan said that some members of the current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council might be included in the new interim government or on the preparatory committee for the advisory national conference that was supposed to be elected no later than January.
In a meeting with the 15 Security Council members on Tuesday afternoon, Annan reminded the diplomats that the U.N. election team had said a minimum of eight months were required to set up elections, and that was the best-case scenario, participants in the meeting said.
The chief of the electoral team now in Iraq, Carina Perelli, said Sunday that preparations were on track and that the U.N. expected to form an independent electoral commission by month’s end to oversee polling. The elections would be held only if the security situation permits, she has said.
At least four countries are discussing contributing troops for a special U.N. protection force under U.S. command called for in the draft resolution.
Pakistan is among them, but its ambassador, Munir Akram, said there were still many unanswered questions about the composition, mandate and command of the force.
“We haven’t ruled it out, but we haven’t ruled it in,” he said .
Curtius reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations. Times staff writers Alissa Rubin in Baghdad, John Daniszewski in London and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.