BAGHDAD — Tough U.S. tactics in Fallouja and Shiite Muslim cities of southern Iraq are driving a wedge between the Americans and their key supporter -- the 25-member Governing Council that puts an Iraqi face on the occupation and is expected to serve as the basis of a new government.
One council member, angered by this week's heavy fighting in Fallouja and the prospect of a U.S. move against the militia of an anti-American Shiite cleric, suspended his membership Friday. Four others say they are ready to follow suit.
A sixth council member, Adnan Pachachi, a respected former diplomat who less than three months ago had accompanied First Lady Laura Bush to the president's State of the Union address, harshly criticized U.S. actions as "illegal and totally unacceptable."
From the beginning of the occupation, one of the biggest questions for U.S. authorities was how to create an indigenous leadership that would be acceptable to both the United States and the Iraqi people.
The Governing Council was a tenuous solution; many Iraqis accused its members of being little more than America's puppets.
But now even that backing seems on the verge of crumbling, undermining U.S. insistence that it has Iraqi support for its policies and leaving no one to hand power to, as the Bush administration insists it will, on June 30.
"The coalition has opened too many fronts in Iraq, alienating a large swath of the population," said Hachim Hassani, who is representing the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni Muslim group, on the council. "The Iraqi people now equate democracy with bloodshed."
The council members say the only move that would stop them from suspending or resigning their membership is the U.S. military's agreement to halt military operations in Fallouja long enough for council members to engage in negotiations with the local community to try to forestall further bloodshed.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a Senate subcommittee that the U.S. would prefer to hand sovereignty on June 30 to an expanded version of the Governing Council. Experts said that option might be rapidly vanishing.
"The Governing Council is falling apart, so the hope of the Bush administration to have even a symbolic transition looks remote, especially because they won't have anybody to whom to transfer sovereignty," said Marina Ottaway, a democracy expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The council members threatening to suspend their membership are Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni tribal leader whose base is in Mosul; Salama Khafaji, a Shiite woman from Baghdad; and Hassani, who is acting on behalf of the Iraqi Islamic Party's council member. According to news reports, Abdul Karim Mohammedawi, a Shiite, announced the suspension of his council membership Friday. Fellow council members said Turkmen member Singul Chapuk was considering suspending her membership. Her aide would not confirm that.
Khafaji is among those trying to facilitate negotiations to end the fighting around Fallouja. One of her aides said that Khafaji would work to make negotiations possible even if occupation authorities failed to do so.
But perhaps the most serious development for U.S. authorities was an interview given to the Al Arabiya satellite TV station by Pachachi, a secular Sunni who is widely considered sympathetic to the U.S. and commands respect from many Iraqis.
"We consider the action carried out by U.S. forces illegal and totally unacceptable," Pachachi said. "We denounce the military operations carried out by the American forces because, in effect, it is [inflicting] collective punishment on the residents of Fallouja."
U.S. officials dismissed the criticism.
"Nothing can be further from the truth," military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said. "We run extremely precise operations focused on people we have intelligence on for crimes of violence against the coalition and against the Iraqi people."
Marine commanders vowed to pacify Fallouja last week after a horrific attack on four American security contractors who were ambushed and killed there.
Their bodies were burned and mutilated by a mob of cheering Iraqis, and two of the bodies were hung from a bridge.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the military had no choice but to move into Fallouja.
"This is not something in which we can just turn our heads and look the other way," he said.
In Washington, a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that there were differences with some Iraqi officials over how to deal with the security threats.
"There are different views about it. But we've got to do what we think is right," he said. The official said it was possible that some council members wanted to keep a distance from the coalition authorities at a time when anti-Americanism was on the rise.
People who know Pachachi said that he was angry, and that unless the situation improved, it would be hard for him to stay on the council.