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US sees challenge from Iraq council

Interim government pushes toward self-rule

WASHINGTON -- The interim Iraqi government, set up by the United States to advise its senior administrator in Baghdad, has surprised Washington recently with a series of increasingly contentious positions as it presses for self-rule, from a push for sweeping economic changes to a move toward normalizing trade relations with Syria and Iran, countries branded by US officials as exporters of terrorism.

For the Bush administration, which is already fending off demands from allies for a swift return to Iraqi self-rule, such assertiveness by the Governing Council is a mixed blessing, analysts and diplomats say: It means democracy is evolving in Iraq, but at a pace difficult for Washington to control and not necessarily compatible with its interests.

"At this moment, [the White House] is being challenged by the council," Kenton W. Keith, senior vice president of the Washington-based Meridian International Center and a former US ambassador to Qatar. "It looks like a governing council and it walks like a governing council. It is getting support and encouragement from the international community. In the minds of its members, it has arrived."

The rapid push for self-rule, led by Ahmed Chalabi, a prominent dissident during Saddam Hussein's rule who is now the council's president, is the latest sign that the 25-member panel is growing more independent-minded and could disrupt the work of L. Paul Bremer III, the top US civilian official in Iraq.

Comments Chalabi made before this week's opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York followed other declarations by the council in recent weeks that challenge Bremer's desire for gradual political development and economic change.

In another move toward greater autonomy, council members have supported actions by some oil-producing countries to raise fuel prices and have pushed toward normalizing trade relations with neighbors Syria and Iran.

Appointed in June by Bremer, the council comprises Iraqi ethnic and religious leaders. It was formed in part to assure Iraqis that Washington has no imperial ambitions and would ultimately leave the country in Iraqi hands.

Although many Iraqis dismiss the body as an American rubber stamp, it has become increasingly forceful in ways that have become as nettlesome to the Bush administration's controlling approach to Iraq's transition as was France and Germany's opposition to the US-led war.

The council could get even more assertive following this week's assassination of council member Aquila al-Hashimi, whose death has exposed the danger posed to Iraqis who appear to comply with American wishes. In addition, a UN resolution that would formally recognize the Governing Council -- to be followed by loans from international agencies -- is expected soon, and council members are likely to demand a greater say in how that money is spent, observers said.

James A. Phillips, a specialist on the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said members of the interim council are "intent on establishing an identity separate from the US, and they will increasingly go out of their way to demonstrate they're not [American] puppets."

Members of Congress fumed early this week after reports surfaced that the Governing Council would ease its crippling power shortage by buying electricity from Syria and Iran.

Tempers rose further after a council member, at a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, voted in support of a proposal to cut oil production at a time when gas prices in the United States are already at record highs. It was another example that Iraq was beginning to function as an independent state.

"I have to ask," Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement Thursday, "why the Bush administration expects the US taxpayers to [finance] an open-ended financial and military commitment to nation-building in a country that turns around and votes with OPEC to shake down the American consumer with higher oil prices."

Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations this week, Bremer said a pell-mell transfer of authority would "short-circuit" US plans for a sustainable democracy in Iraq. The administration seemed to backpedal a little Thursday, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a speech at the United Nations that a framework for Iraqi elections could be established within months.

Chalabi's increasingly vocal role has rankled some members of Congress. Representative Don Young, a Republican of Alaska who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Chalabi -- a grateful recipient of US support while in exile -- "now seems like he is no longer one of us. He seems to be one of them now."

Bremer acknowledged to legislators the growing power of the Governing Council. Asked by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday whether he was the ultimate authority in Iraq, Bremer demurred.

"Less and less," he said. "We have a Governing Council and we have Iraqi ministers. So more and more decision-making is effectively collaborative. . . . [But] the ultimate authority is the coalition's."

At one point, legislators suggested that Iraqi oil revenues could be used to offset the high costs of reconstruction or serve as collateral against a loan.

But Bremer said the council had passed a law, which he signed, banning foreign meddling in the oil industry.

Bremer and the ruling council also seem to be diverging over the pace and breadth of economic change. Last month Bremer met with World Bank officials in Baghdad, and according to bank members who were present, agreed with their conclusion that privatization should be delayed until violence is quelled and the country's infrastructure stabilized.

But at an economic summit this week in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, Iraq's provisional finance minister announced a series of laws authorizing the immediate deregulation and privatization of many parts of the Iraqi economy. The laws sent shock waves around the international community and came under harsh criticism by Iraqis fearful that their country's assets would soon be controlled by foreigners.

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