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U.S. Tries to Adapt as Options Dwindle

A series of policy reversals in Iraq shows strategies yielding to political realities.

May 15, 2004|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With a new Iraqi government due in less than seven weeks, U.S. officials have been trying to build a future for the country on lofty concepts of constitutional democracy. In real time, though, a different principle increasingly guides the U.S. mission: Go with what works.

The Bush administration has junked one plan after another since last fall as it has groped its way, by trial and error, to a new order in Iraq. Officials have dumped a plan for grass-roots electoral caucuses, accepted former members of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's regime in the Iraqi government and military, and turned to the United Nations to design the caretaker administration -- all despite earlier vows to do otherwise.

This week, American officials took another step sideways by signaling that they will give more power in a transitional government to members of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council, a group that is resented by many Iraqis and was omitted from earlier plans. The interim government is expected to take office when the United States transfers sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30 and serve until the elections that are planned for next year.

The reversals by administration officials show that, again and again, "they've made compromises and adjustments on the ground, even though they inevitably conflict with their democratic vision," said Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center in Washington. "They have an extraordinary capacity to do the practical."

U.S. officials acknowledged that the latest turnaround could undermine their goal of building a government that is acceptable to the Bush administration and legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis. But U.S. choices are increasingly limited by a shortage of time and of Iraqis willing to do business with Americans.

"We've got to get this thing moving, and we just don't have that many friends," said a longtime government expert on Iraq, who asked to remain unidentified. "That means we've got to husband the people who are with us in this. We are very weak."

The transitional government could hold a great deal of power, given Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's statement Friday that, if asked by the Iraqis, the U.S. military would leave.

The latest shift on the interim government, like earlier policy reversals, follows a pattern in which the U.S. adopts a sensible-sounding plan, then collides with reality.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a U.N. envoy asked to draw a blueprint for an interim government, had convinced U.S. officials to support an administration run by nonpolitical technocrats. The plan offered the possibility of preventing ambitious Iraqi politicians from shaping next year's elections in a way that would perpetuate their own hold on power.

Brahimi, an Algerian who served as U.N. envoy in post-Taliban Afghanistan, feared a transitional government tainted by politics would be questioned by Iraqis who felt excluded and could undermine the legitimacy of the elected government that is expected to follow next year.

The U.S. endorsed Brahimi's proposal. Soon, however, Iraqi groups allied with the United States were reminding the administration how much it depends on them.

Two leading Kurdish groups that are part of the current Iraqi Governing Council made clear that they would not support a caretaker government that did not include their leaders, which would be a heavy blow to U.S. goals in Iraq. Influence over predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq, which has delicate relations with neighboring countries that have restive Kurdish populations of their own, is seen as vital to U.S. objectives.

"If you don't want the Kurds messing things up for you, you want to have them in the tent," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official and an expert on the region.

U.S. officials also value the support of Shiite Muslim political parties represented on the Governing Council, including the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Although their bases are relatively small, they could offer some support at a time when Iraqi backing for the U.S. has been plummeting. Shiites make up nearly two-thirds of Iraq's population.

A poll by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority this month showed that 80% of the Iraqi respondents have no confidence in the CPA and 82% disapprove of the U.S. authorities and their allies, the Washington Post reported.

Yet, as they changed course on the transitional government, American officials also acknowledged the risks of giving the politicians a larger role. The U.S. effort would be damaged if Iraqis came to see the caretaker government as favoring one group or another and if they "support it, disagree with it, or oppose it, based along sectarian lines," one official said.

Another risk is that Iraqis would view the interim government as corrupt, he added.

The decision wasn't the first instance in which the administration's Iraqi allies have forced its hand.

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