The new top U.S. official in Iraq met for the first time Friday with the seven political leaders likely to form the core of a new government and said he found common ground on the way forward.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator, said they agreed on three priorities: restoring security, building democracy and rooting out the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. "It was a frank, open exchange - a very friendly and long discussion," he said.
But The New York Times is reporting in its Saturday editions that the United States and Britain have indefinitely put off their plan to allow Iraqi opposition forces to form a national assembly and an interim government by the end of the month. The Times calls the decision "an abrupt reversal."
Instead, says the Times, top American and British diplomats leading reconstruction efforts in Iraq told exile leaders during the meeting that allied officials would remain in charge of Iraq for an indefinite period.
Bremer, who was accompanied by John Sawers, a British diplomat representing Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the Iraqi political figures at the meeting that the allies preferred to revert to the concept of creating an "interim authority" — not a provisional government — so that Iraqis could assist them by creating a constitution for Iraq, revamping the educational system and devising a plan for future democratic elections, the Times reports.
One Iraqi who attended the meeting is cited by the Times as saying Iraqi opposition leaders expressed strong disappointment over the reversal.
Yet Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that the views of U.S. and Iraqi leaders at the session were "very close to each other, and in some cases they are identical."
In other developments:
Sawers came out of the meeting with Bremer and the Iraqis saying, "What we are doing is addressing the most urgent issues first," Sawers said. "The most urgent issue is that of security, and along with that the question of ensuring that the Baath Party cannot return in any shape or form."
Bremer said, "We've got to first get law and order back. We've got to get basic services back, we've got to deal with the de-Baathification of this country. Eventually a new constitution has to be written."
Even though Baghdad police have begun returning to work - and the U.S. Army sent 2,000 military policemen and promised more - many of the 5 million residents of the capital are still afraid to venture out at night. Reports still stream in of kidnappings, rapes and carjackings.
Bremer has tapped a former New York City police chief to help re-establish the police and prison services. Bernard Kerik led the New York Police Department through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
U.S. authorities have blamed security problems on the fact that Saddam emptied Iraq's prisons in the dying days of his regime, returning thousands of hardened criminals back to the streets. But Bremer says they're being rounded up, and reports several hundred arrests.
Bremer signed an order Friday banning members of the Baath Party's top four echelons from public office, whether in government, universities, hospitals or other institutions.
As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party under Saddam - a requirement for many civil-service jobs. Between 15,000 and 30,000 of them will be affected by the order, U.S. officials say.
Meanwhile, the United States pushed for a vote on a U.N. resolution to help rebuild the country. Russia, China and France have made it clear they want major changes in a U.S.-backed resolution to lift U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
Security Council members finished a paragraph-by-paragraph review of the nine-page revised U.S. draft resolution late Friday. Many called for a stronger U.N. role in postwar Iraq and greater transparency by the occupying powers, the United States and Britain, diplomats said.
In Deauville, France, Finance ministers from the world's richest nations and Russia accept that Iraq will be unable to begin paying off its debts at least until 2005, the U.S. treasury secretary said Saturday.
John Snow said he also won backing from his counterparts in the Group of Eight to expand international efforts to survey the extent of Iraqi debts, estimated in the tens of billions of U.S. dollars.