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Coalition Leaders Resist Pressure to Hand Over Power to Iraqis Too Soon

It has been six months since the war on Iraq began and nearly five months since coalition forces declared victory and began efforts to rebuild the country. The international community is currently debating how quickly the U.S.-led authority should hand power back to Iraqis. France, Germany, most Arab governments and many other countries want the return of sovereignty to happen as soon as possible, within months. But coalition leaders and some Iraqis are saying the process will take time because the task is enormous and there are important differences over how it should happen. Officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority and of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council are virtually unanimous in saying they want Iraqi sovereignty to be returned to Iraqis as soon as possible. And they say the appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council two months ago, and its ministerial cabinet three weeks ago are steps in the right direction.

A member of the Governing Council, Samir Sumeidy, says the process is well underway.

"The process that has taken place until now and is on-going has seen a gradual transfer of sovereignty that still is not complete and will take more time," said he said.

Mr. Sumeidy, who recently returned after 26 years in exile, says the symbols of sovereignty have been transferred. Now the two sides are grappling with the actual transfer of power. But he says many Iraqis do not consider the Governing Council to be the real government of Iraq. He says to change this perception, the Coalition Provisional Authority must defer more to the Council's decisions, even if it disagrees.

The head of the Coalition Authority, Paul Bremer, says he wants to hand over power as soon as possible. He says the ministers already have the authority to make policy decisions, oversee their spending and help formulate next year's budget. But they will continue to work with coalition appointed advisors. He says four steps remain toward the return of full Iraqi sovereignty.

"There will be a constitutional conference convened on the basis of the recommendation of a preparatory committee, we hope in the months ahead," he said. "That conference will write the new constitution for Iraq."

Mr. Bremer says once the constitution has been written and debated, the Iraqi people will be given the chance to ratify it. This will lead to national elections and the transfer of full sovereignty to the elected Iraqi government.

But some Iraqi leaders want the constitutional convention to be elected, rather than appointed, because they are concerned that coalition officials might try to influence its decisions. Critics say an election for the people who draft the constitution would further delay the transition.

In addition, there are major constitutional issues to be resolved once the convention is called. Although many leaders prefer a secular form of government, some Iraqi religious leaders say they want an Islamic constitution.

Ayatollah Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, member of the Governing Council and one of the more moderate Shiite Muslim leaders, says the constitution should guarantee the freedom and rights of all the Iraqi people, including the minorities. But, he says, the constitution must respect what he calls the Islamic identity of Iraqi Muslims.

A political science professor at Baghdad University, Wamid Nadhmi, says he does not think the Islamists are seeking a purely Islamic constitution. And he says less-religious Iraqis would not object to some reference to Islam in the constitution.

"I think even the most secular person in this country would have no objection at [to] respect of Islam, its general traditions," said Mr. Nadhmi. "So I don't think the problem of Islamism versus secularism will raise a problem."

One key question for the Iraqi constitutional convention will be how to put respect for Iraq's Islamic identity into legal terms.

Professor Nadhmi says a problem might also arise over the proposed federation of the Kurdish part of Iraq. He says this will raise the question of whether the rest of Iraq should be federated and that could aggravate ethnic and secular differences.

In addition, sources close to the Iraqi Council and the Provisional Authority say there are tensions over the course of the transition.

Some council members say provisional authority officials are mostly westerners who have relatively little knowledge of Iraqi culture and governance. As a result, they say the provisional authority is slowing the efforts to get the country running again.

Some coalition officials, on the other hand, believe that the Iraqi interim leadership takes too long to make important decisions, like the cabinet appointments, which took two months.

Some of the Iraqi leaders feel the Provisional Authority spends too much money on its own operations. They believe the Iraqi leadership could get more results from the same funds. Coalition officials note they are legally responsible for the millions of dollars being spent in Iraq and have to make sure the funds are spent wisely and with following proper procedures.

There are also differences within the Governing Council itself, whose membership reflects the ethnic and secular populations of Iraq. The council includes many technocrats focused on governance and institution building. But it also includes political and religious leaders who believe that a balance of ethnic and sectarian interests is vital to ensure political stability.

Differences between these groups are said to be a major reason for delays in naming the cabinet and on other important issues.

Samir Sumeidy of the Governing Council says the group is so diverse that the greatest challenge so far has been for its members to learn to work together.

"I think the single most important achievement of the Council has been this - the ability to accommodate others who are totally different, who are so different that they could even be conceivably foreigners to each other," he said. "But they are still working together."

Mr. Sumeidy says there is tension and frustration, but council members are committed to what he calls this great experiment, because he says the Iraqi people are watching, and will never forgive them if they fail. The coalition authority is under the same pressure.