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U.S. Wants Speedier Iraq Handover

Iraq and USA Flag with a map of Iraq highlighted on top
AP / CBS
After two days of urgent meetings with President Bush and his advisers, the top American civilian in Iraq headed back to Baghdad on Thursday with the outline of a plan to speed the U.S. handover of power to Iraqis.

Until now, the transfer of power was to come only after a new Iraqi constitution was drafted and elections were held. The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council faced a deadline of Dec. 15 to produce a timetable and process for drafting the constitution.

But U.S. officials were worried the council was divided and moving too slowly, and civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer rushed to Washington for urgent meetings at the White House involving the president and his National Security Council.

As they met, conditions on the ground appeared more troubling: A CIA report suggested Iraqis' confidence in the Americans was waning, and violence has escalated. Some 40 U.S. troops have died in the month of November, and coalition partners suffered their worst single loss in a bombing Wednesday that killed 18 Italians and 13 others.

The administration refused to discuss publicly what was under consideration, saying the Iraqi council had to be consulted first. U.S. officials said decisions would not be imposed by the United States, but would be agreed upon with the council.

Addressing reporters Thursday, the president said Bremer said the Iraqis want to be more involved.

"That's a positive development. That's what we want. We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country," he said.

The president did not discuss governing options for Iraq although aides have talked about establishing an interim government before a new constitution is written, a significant change from the current strategy.

Accounts depicted the new proposals as a set of ideas rather than a concrete timetable.

CBS News Senior White House Correspondent John Roberts reports a leading proposal was to create a provisional government that would quickly assume some control while a constitution was written and elections planned. That would mirror the model used in Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai was installed to lead an interim administration.

Another option calls for creating a smaller body within the 25-seat council -- perhaps 10 people with expanded roles -- or establishing one person as a strong leader, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Yet another possibility is an election in the near future to select an interim leadership that would draft the constitution, paving the way for another vote to elect more permanent leaders.

Council members Thursday dismissed a report that Iraqi political leaders had decided against writing a new constitution and would propose to immediately assume the powers of a provisional government.

"Such news is nonsense. The process of preparing the constitution is under way and it is going on," said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman of Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi.

According to The New York Times, powerful Shiite leaders are calling for elections to determine who writes the constitution. But Governing Council members were worried such a vote would likely allow Shiites to dominate the drafting process, perhaps sewing ethnic tensions that would eventually ignite.

Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd member of the Governing Council, said the council was considering a provisional government among other options, but no decision would be made until Bremer returned.

However, Chalabi said Thursday that the U.S.-led coalition needs to give Iraqis more responsibility for securing their country.

"What is needed now is that Iraqis should take more and more charge of the security situation," Chalabi told the BBC. "We wanted…the United States fighting Saddam (Hussein), and not an occupation."

France's foreign minister on Thursday urged the United States to change its strategy in Iraq to halt escalating violence, saying that Paris was ready to meet with Washington and devise a new plan.

"Everyday, it is spiraling in Iraq with American, British, Polish, Spanish, Italian deaths," Dominique de Villepin told Europe-1 radio. "How many deaths does it take to understand that it is essential to change the approach?"

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said Thursday that its "exit strategy" in Iraq had not been changed because of a recent upsurge in violence against international forces and agencies.

"The strategy is a free and prosperous Iraq for the Iraqi people, by the Iraqi people. We will stay until the job is done. The coalition will not be bombed, terrorized or intimidated to leave until we have done the job," said Blair's spokesman, who brief reporters on condition of anonymity.

But Britain's foreign secretary said it would be difficult to make progress in bringing democracy to Iraq until the security crisis was brought under control.

"We have got to get on top of the security problem because I accept that it is a precondition for real political progress and obviously for normalization in the country," Jack Straw told the BBC.

Mr. Bush on Thursday expressed resolve to curb the violence which has killed 396 U.S. soldiers.

"We're going to prevail," the president said. "We've got a good strategy to deal with these killers."

"The goal of the terrorists…is to create terror and fear amongst average Iraqis…create the conditions where people are just so fearful for their lives that they cannot think positively about freedom. That's their goal," he said.

"Our goal, of course, is to continue to work with those Iraqi citizens who understand that freedom is a precious commodity, those who understand that there is a hopeful life possible in a part of the world where a lot of hope has diminished in the past."

"And that's the struggle…and we're going to prevail," Mr. Bush vowed.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called on the CIA to brief Congress on "just what, if anything, can be done to change the deteriorating set of circumstances."