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Powell: US Has Open Mind on Iraqi Interim Government - 2004-02-17


Secretary of State Colin Powell says the Bush administration has an "open mind" on how an interim government in Iraq is selected. But he says the United States is still determined to transfer sovereignty to such a government by June 30 as planned.

The secretary's remarks come amid reports that many if not most members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council no longer support the idea of regional caucuses to choose an interim government as was envisioned in the plan for transferring sovereignty reached last November.

In a talk with reporters, Mr. Powell said the Bush administration is not prepared to make any decisions on the matter until it hears a report on United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's week of extensive political soundings in Iraq.

But he made clear the United States is amenable to changes in the caucus plan provided the June 30 date for handing over power to the Iraqis remains in place.

"Is the caucus still the best way to do it, or can the caucus process be refined or modified in some way," he said, "or is there some other procedure that might be used to reflect the will of the Iraqi people as we move forward? And so we're waiting to get the report from the U.N. Secretary-General before any decisions are made. And I think the Governing Council is also waiting to hear the report of Ambassador Brahimi, and so we've got an open mind on it. But as Ambassador Bremer says, we're still determined to move forward to transfer sovereignty by the 30 of June."

The present plan calls for caucuses to be held in all Iraq's 18 provinces to choose participants in the interim government.

Nearly all members of the governing council endorsed it in a pivotal meeting with U.S. administrator Bremer November 15.

But support, especially among Shiite Muslim members, began to erode after Iraq's most influential Shiite clergyman, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rejected the plan and called for the interim government to be chosen through direct elections before June 30.

In his comments, Mr. Powell said "no one believes" such an election is possible by June. But he said nationwide, direct elections are possible by the end of this year or in 2005.

Ambassador Brahimi, who met the Ayatollah Sistani among others in Iraq, is understood to have reached a similar conclusion.

The U.N. envoy is to brief Secretary-General Kofi Annan on his findings Wednesday, and Mr. Annan, in turn, is said by a spokesman to be aiming to have a recommendation on the Iraqi electoral process ready by Friday.

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