Iraq's Odious Debts

Iraqis assail U.S. plans for council

The Washington Post, USA
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
June 3, 2003

BAGHDAD — Iraqi political leaders lashed out today at a plan by the top U.S. civilian administrator here to appoint an interim advisory council instead of convening a national conference to choose a transitional government, saying that U.S. officials had reneged on earlier assurances and that many Iraqis would regard the decision as unpalatable.

Leaders of seven key political groups held an emergency meeting today on the decision by L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, to select between 25 and 30 Iraqis to serve on an interim political council whose powers would largely be limited to advising U.S. officials on policy issues and nominating Iraqis to serve in senior positions in government ministries. The organizations refrained from issuing a joint condemnation of Bremer’s plan because they hope to persuade him to change course, but some of the groups made it clear they disapproved of the decision.

“We are skeptical this is going to work,” said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, which has close ties to Pentagon officials and was until recently an exile group based in London.

Qanbar said the seven groups, including two parties representing ethnic Kurds and two representing Shiite Muslims, want to soon have an interim Iraqi government with clearly defined authority for various aspects of governance instead of an “advisory board to Bremer.”

While the U.S. occupation authority is not obliged to listen to the views of the political groups, they do represent millions of Iraqis and serve as important interlocutors for U.S. officials attempting to navigate the country’s uncharted and fractious political landscape.

Hamid Bayati, a senior official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which represents many of the country’s majority Shiites, said his party has “serious concerns that we’re not going to have a national conference.” The political organizations had supported the concept of a conference where hundreds of representatives from the country’s religious, ethnic and tribal groups would debate the form and membership of a transitional administration.

The national assembly was regarded by many Iraqis as an important initial step by the United States toward meeting Iraqi demands for self-governance.

Just a few weeks ago, U.S. officials here had voiced support for such an assembly, and suggested it would be held next month. At the time, U.S. officials also had indicated they would quickly hand over authority for some ministries unrelated to security to a transitional administration.

Because there would be no separate, Iraqi-led transitional government under Bremer’s plan, it remains unclear whether Iraqis would have an opportunity to independently run some ministries, such as education and health, before a formal transfer of power from the U.S. authority to an elected Iraqi government, which could be more than a year away.

Bayati said Iraqi political leaders “are disappointed with Bremer’s plan.”

“We had hoped for an Iraqi process to select an interim administration, which would have some clear powers,” he said. “Now, it does not look like that will happen.”

A senior official of a Kurdish political party accused the U.S. occupation authority of backtracking on its assurances to Iraqi leaders. “We thought we had an understanding with them,” the official said. “Now, what do we say to our constituents? We told them there was going to be an interim government.”

Bremer defended his approach at a news conference today, suggesting that he faced a choice between giving Iraqis time to select an interim council, or handpicking one based on consultations with Iraqis in an effort to quickly assemble a group that could advise U.S. officials on aspects of the reconstruction.

“Most of the Iraqis we’ve talked to have been anxious to move ahead rather quickly to establish an interim administration and we agree with that,” he said. “We think it’s important for the Iraqi people to be seen to be involved in some very important decisions that are going to have to be made in the weeks and months ahead, and we have felt the best way to get that forward quickly is to broaden our consultations, to step up the pace of our consultations, and to arrive at a decision about the political council rather quickly.”

Bremer also said an advisory council — as opposed to a transitional government with broader powers — was in line with a recently passed U.N. Security Council resolution that gives the U.S. and British governments the authority to run Iraq until a constitution is drafted, national elections are held and a new government is in place.

In Baghdad today, several Iraqis said they regarded Bremer’s plan as a denial of their political rights and a move that could increase negative attitudes toward the U.S. occupation authority.

“If they want stability, they should let Iraqis govern Iraq,” said Abdul Latif, an accountant. “We should be allowed to choose who should represent us.”

On the streets of the capital, the disenchantment with U.S. policies on other issues was also evident. As many as 2,000 former soldiers massed outside the gates of the Republican Palace, where the U.S. occupation authority has its offices, to demand salaries and new jobs.

Bremer recently disbanded Iraq’s armed forces, which were estimated to have between 300,000 and 400,000 troops.

Although the protest was largely peaceful, some participants threatened to attack U.S. soldiers if they did not receive compensation. The occupation authority has given $20 emergency payments to some Iraqi civil servants, but not to soldiers.

Bremer said recruiting for a new security force, dubbed the Iraqi Corps, would begin by the end of this month. He also said thousands of demobilized soldiers would be hired next week to clean up sites that would be used to train the new military.

A senior U.S. official said the Iraqi Corps likely would have between 40,000 and 50,000 members, meaning many former soldiers will still have to find new jobs. The official said some former soldiers could be hired to serve as security guards for government installations.

Officers who held the rank of colonel or above in the old army would be barred from the new security forces, Bremer said.

Bremer also called on countries that lent Iraq money when it was run by Saddam Hussein to forgive those obligations because the country should not be forced to use its resources to “service crippling debts.” Although he did not detail the extent of Iraq’s debt or name creditor nations, the request appeared to be directed at several nations that opposed the U.S.-led war to topple Hussein, including France and Russia, which had sold military and industrial equipment to Iraq on credit in the 1980s.

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