Breathing Room in Iraq Transition

Pending a Vote, Some Iraqis Press for a Larger Governing Council

As prospects for early elections faded, several Iraqi leaders said Thursday that they wanted the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to remain in place after the United States transferred power back to the people on June 30. Plans are already under way to expand the council, they added.

The leaders, including representatives from the major ethnic and religious groups and members of the council, said a consensus had emerged to increase the current council of 25 people to as many as 125, and to keep it in power until United Nations-assisted elections could be held in early 2005.

Several council members said the plan appeared to have cleared a potentially major obstacle: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, indicated that he would accept an enlarged council as long as this was part of the United Nations recommendation. It was the ayatollah’s call for early elections that brought the United Nations to Iraq in the first place.

The idea of enlarging the council, which has been in play for weeks, crystallized Thursday after the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said holding elections for an all-new government was impossible before June 30. Mr. Annan said he would not object to the continuation of the council, which emerged from an American-led process over the summer, as long as it was significantly changed.

“We have no other choice now,” said one of the leaders, Yonadam Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic Party and a council member. “We are in the middle of a process and we can’t have Iraq go in a random direction. The key now is to reach out to more groups so the people feel we represent them.”


Several times on Thursday, Mr. Bremer deferred to the United Nations, saying he was not going to make any decisions until the organization issued its recommendations on what to do about Iraq. “On all of these matters, we are going to wait until we hear what the secretary general has to say,” he said.

Mr. Bremer’s remarks were in line with the Bush administration’s eagerness to have the United Nations engaged here, an important turnabout. Washington had shunned the United Nations in the weeks before the war, but officials are now courting it to boost the legitimacy of an increasingly nettlesome occupation.

Senior United Nations officials said they might not be ready to share their recommendations for another week, past the Feb. 28 deadline for an interim constitution.

“It’s a bit disappointing that the U.N. can’t make a recommendation, and that in fact imposes a delay,” said Feisal al-Istrabadi, the legal adviser to Mr. Pachachi, who sits on the constitution committee. “They took a long time to come out here.”

The interim constitution is a crucial milestone in the transition to independence. Before it can become law, the document must spell out how a new government will be selected by the end of 2005.

On Thursday, a fiery Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, said Iraqis might rebel if the constitution did not enshrine Islamic law, in answer to Mr. Bremer’s earlier comments indicating that he would veto a constitution that did so.

This is good news indeed. Trying to effect a full-scale turnover on the seemingly arbitrary timetable that has emerged is a recipe for disaster. Hopefully, this interim step will allow for a more orderly process.

I continue to be amazed that the press continue to report as fact “Washington had shunned the United Nations in the weeks before the war.” I guess the speeches by President Bush, Colin Powell, the passage of Resolution 1441 and other UN resolutions since, and all the other efforts to get the UN to enforce its own resolutions don’t count?

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. RicK DeMent says:

    Really it should read, “…shunned the UN until the Democrats pressured them go there”. [grin]