Iraq's largest leftist party — which battled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and now holds a seat on the U.S.-picked Governing Council — blames Washington for the upsurge in armed resistance and wants U.N. peacekeepers to replace American troops in the near future.

Salaam Ali, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party's (search) Central Committee, told The Associated Press that the slowness of the occupation authorities in devising a viable plan for the transfer of authority to an Iraqi government had emboldened "defeated elements" of Saddam's regime and religious militants.

"If the Americans had listened to us back in May and allowed a national conference to pick a legitimate government, there would never have been this level of instability," Ali said in an interview in his office, where a small, gold colored statue of Lenin (search) stood on the mantle.

Still, the party — Iraq's oldest and broadest secular political grouping — intends to stick with the 25-member Governing Council and to cooperate with L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in the country, during the upcoming transition. The party's secretary general, Hamid Majid Moussa (search), will continue to serve on the body, Ali said.

Despite the ideological differences between the communists — who still stress their Marxist roots — and the coalition, officials say the two sides have cooperated surprisingly well over the past several months.

Much of this is due to the fact that the communists and other secular parties serve as a political counterbalance to the dominant, but fractious, Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups and the ethnic-based Kurdish parties.

Historically, the party has drawn support mainly from the impoverished Shiites of southern Iraq. In the 1960s, its influence gradually spread to rural communities and middle classes in the Sunni-dominated central part of Iraq. Despite its secular roots, the party's program calls for respect for Iraq's Islamic and Arab heritage.

"The Communist Party probably has the broadest geographical representation in the country, it's the most national of the parties," said a coalition official who asked not to be identified. "We get along fine with them and they've behaved responsibly in terms of the redevelopment of Iraq."

But, the official said, it was difficult to gauge the extent of influence and public support that a secular and nonreligious party can garner in post-Saddam Iraq.

"It's hard to predict how they will fare in free elections particularly if these are going to be on sectarian, tribal or ethnic lines."

According to a Nov. 15 U.S. blueprint for transferring power to Iraqis, nationwide caucuses to elect members of a transitional legislature will be held in spring. A provisional government is to be named by July 1, when occupation authorities will turn over power and sovereignty to the new administration.

The provisional government would run the country until a general election is held and a new constitution adopted before the end of 2005.

"We are encouraging the masses to get involved in this political process and in the creation of new democratic institutions," Ali said in an interview at the Party's downtown headquarters.

But if the security situation still requires the presence of foreign troops next year, the communists will demand that the new government invite the United Nations to take over that role.

"We have always believed that the U.N. has a central role to play. International forces should be under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council with full agreement of the Iraqi government," Ali said.

This flies in the face of Washington's plans — U.S. officials want the provisional government to conclude a new status of forces agreement that will allow the American forces to remain in Iraq.

The communists have crossed swords with the United States in the past. In 1960, they supported the nationalization of Iraq's vast oil resources, infuriating the Eisenhower administration.

After the Baath Party (search) overthrew the communist-supported government of Gen. Abdel Karim Qassim in a CIA-backed coup, thousands of communists and other leftists were executed.

The party eventually regrouped and established a presence in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where its armed militia fought alongside Kurdish resistance groups against Saddam's army. Clandestine cells also operated elsewhere in Iraq despite being hounded by the secret police.

The communists say that after 40 years in the political wilderness, they now want to stage a major political comeback.

The party publishes its own newspaper — Tariq al-Shaab (The Peoples' Road) — and is starting a weekly magazine and a radio station.

With a core of committed activists and a growing network of party cells, they intend to re-establish influence in their traditional constituencies — workers, peasants, and educated professionals, Ali said.