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Iraqi Leaders Face Difficult Tests

As religious and ethnic power struggles grow, some worry that the U.N. resolution may have a limited effect in promoting stability.

June 10, 2004|Maggie Farley and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — Despite the Security Council's endorsement Tuesday of sovereignty for Iraq, the interim Iraqi government faces a difficult future because of its inherent weakness and strong divisions within the country.

On June 30, the United States will hand over the reins to a caretaker government, led by a former exile, that was selected by the U.S., the U.N. and their Iraqi allies. As a result, the interim government has limited legitimacy or credibility among Iraqis, and its survival will remain dependent on U.S. backing, most notably the 160,000 American-led foreign troops providing security in the nation.

Moreover, the government is scheduled to dissolve after elections planned for January and must deal not only with a faltering infrastructure but also with a legacy in Iraq of political and religious rivalries and an entrenched insurgency.

Nearly 15 months after U.S.-led forces toppled President Saddam Hussein's regime, interim leaders face Sunni Baathist insurgents amassed west of Baghdad in Fallouja, renegade anti-U.S. Shiites in the holy city of Najaf to the south, and Kurdish leaders with their own militia in the north who are warning that they might pull out of the interim government.

"This is a time bomb," a U.N. official said. "Now it's up to the Iraqis to defuse it. We can only hope that they get the time and the tools they need."

The U.S. and U.N. once hoped that after the American-led occupation ended, the resistance would dissipate. Putting Iraqis in control of their own destiny might induce more nations to support the effort by providing troops. And a national conference to help elect future leaders might persuade those left out of power to help build the country rather than undermine it.

Instead, the conflict has spread as the hand-over approaches, and the struggle for power among ethnic and religious factions with competing interests has increased. Now, some international leaders worry that the Security Council resolution, which endorsed the hand-over of sovereignty and authorized multinational forces to remain in Iraq for at least a year with the government's consent, may have a limited effect.

The resolution, approved by a 15-0 vote, is not expected by U.S. or U.N. officials to make the violence decrease or the troop contributions rise.

Envoy Alexander Konuzin said Russia would not send troops to Iraq, even to protect U.N. staffers, "because they're shooting ambulances there."

He added, "I don't think there are many countries volunteering to go there in such a situation when they don't have strong national interests."

U.S. officials insist that although they are seeking help from NATO, the U.N. and other countries to take over roles the U.S.-led occupation authority has been handling, they do not plan a quick exit and will remain deeply engaged in Iraq.

"We're eager to leave and hand everything over to the Iraqis," said a senior U.S. official. "But we're not going to leave them in the lurch."

The hand-over "won't perform miracles," said Chilean Ambassador Heraldo Munoz. "It will be up to the Iraq government to prove themselves. They are not elected, so they will have to earn the respect of their people by the way they perform during these months -- and that respect is the key to ending the violence."

On June 30, the occupation administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, will symbolically hand sovereignty directly to the Iraqi interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. But Allawi made it clear last week that Iraq would continue to need the U.S.-led military forces to provide security.

The interim government is somewhat constrained because of its temporary nature -- it will hold power only until elected leaders take office early next year and is not allowed to make laws or long-term contracts that would bind the permanent government. It also lacks popular legitimacy because it was selected, not elected, by the U.S. and the Iraqi Governing Council, with help from the U.N.

Therefore, the biggest challenge will be to establish itself as independent of the U.S. The easiest way for it to win credibility is by defying the former occupiers. During the selection process for the interim government, the long-unpopular Governing Council suddenly won public support when it claimed to have rejected the U.S. and U.N. pick for president and insisted on installing their own candidate.

The challenges that the hamstrung interim government must immediately deal with are tough ones. It must exert control over competing power bases and semi-autonomous regions that have increasingly defied central rule. It must find a way to include its opponents in building the country, without alienating others. But the political settlements it will inherit that are meant to quell insurgencies in Fallouja and Najaf are precarious.

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