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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ | NEWS ANALYSIS

New Leaders, U.S. Bound by Their Interests

Though the officials are not Washington's top choices, both sides can work together because they agree on key issues.

June 02, 2004|Paul Richter and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The messy process of naming a caretaker government for Iraq didn't give Washington its top choices for new leaders Tuesday. But the interim regime is one that Washington probably will be able to work with.

American officials said they preferred a different president and were reluctant to give members of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council prominent roles in the interim government, fearing doing so could undermine the new body's legitimacy.

Nevertheless, many of the new leaders agree with the Americans on key issues, and both sides are bound by mutual interests. The Americans need to rely on their friends in Iraq, while the Iraqi leaders know that for the time being, they have no choice but to depend on 135,000 U.S. troops to help stave off a persistent insurgency.

There may be public squabbling over security and control of Iraqi finances, but key issues may be settled quietly and pragmatically, analysts say. The interim government is the team President Bush must work with to turn the invasion of Iraq into a success story.

Iraq's new rulers are meant to serve as caretakers until an election process that starts in January. But many analysts believe that the seven-month period could be extended because the situation in the country might make it too dangerous to organize and hold elections.

The new leaders have apparently been given a reprieve. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi wanted interim leaders barred from future elections, but no prohibition was adopted. Now U.S. officials and experts believe that many members of the caretaker government will use the interim period to build political bases for the future.

Both the president and the prime minister of the new government recently have been critical of the U.S. occupation, but the chafing may not go deep or be permanent.

"They can work together," said Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. "And no, this government is not going to ask them to leave precipitously, because [the Iraqi officials] all have a big red bull's-eye painted on them."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have offered conflicting views on the vital question of how much say Iraq should have over the operations of American forces. U.S. military leaders traditionally have been reluctant to share command with other forces.

Yet some experts predict that the Americans may agree to seek Iraqi permission for any major offensive operations. If they didn't, it could raise questions about whether Iraqis really have sovereignty.

"In the end, it's going to be difficult for us to order an attack that the Iraqis don't like, because everybody will end up the loser," said Robert Malley, director of the Mideast program at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization.

Some analysts believe that recent squabbling over the selection of new Iraqi leaders will give some credibility to the new government -- by putting distance between it and the Americans.

"In a way, the more fighting, the better it is for the new government, and ultimately, the better it is for us," said Henri J. Barkey, a Middle East specialist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a former State Department official. "It is important we lose some arguments."

A Western diplomat agreed. "It may not be a bad thing that the [Iraqi Governing Council] has expressed itself in a way that is not necessarily simpatico with the coalition," he said.

Bush, in comments Tuesday to reporters, seemed happy to point out public differences between the U.S. administration and the new Iraqi leaders. He said that new President Ghazi Ajil Yawer had offered some criticisms and that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi made "strong statements" about security matters. But it is a government "that is going to be, first and foremost, loyal to the Iraqi people ... these men are patriots," Bush said. "If there's some criticism of the United States, so be it."

Danielle Pletka, a Middle East scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, said the Governing Council trounced U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, Brahimi and White House liaison Robert D. Blackwill on the selection of the government by resisting their choices of new leaders.

The Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed members of the Iraqi Governing Council had seized their opportunity during negotiations. First, they pushed aside Hussein Shahristani, Brahimi's preferred candidate for prime minister, then "emboldened by that, they moved on to other posts," the diplomat said.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that because some of the new leaders had credentials as independent-minded Arab leaders, the new government "could work." Yet he said he had continuing concerns about how much legitimacy a process dominated by the Americans and Governing Council could have in the eyes of Iraqis.

"A month ago, they said we needed to bring in Brahimi because the Governing Council doesn't have much legitimacy and people don't want the Americans to decide these things," Clawson said. "And now, gosh, it looks like we're back to the Governing Council and the Americans deciding these things."

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