U.S. Mulls Extending Governing Council So It Can Take Control

The Bush administration is considering a major shift in its plan for transition to Iraqi self-rule, possibly extending and expanding the U.S.-appointed Governing Council so it can take temporary control of the country on July 1, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

The serious consideration of that option comes as the Bush administration waits for U.N. help -- now delayed by at least a week -- in settling differences among Iraqi leaders on how to meet the July 1 U.S. deadline.

Under active consideration is extending and expanding the U.S.-handpicked Iraq Governing Council so that it could take interim control in Baghdad (search) until a legislature could be elected, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The administration is eager to see if U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) approves of the idea, the official said.

The current U.S. plan to choose an interim assembly through a complicated system of caucuses has run into hurdles as Shiite clerics demand direct elections and some members of the Council who approved the plan in the first place now doubt that it would work.

Annan is expected to support the administration and advise against direct elections before July 1 for an interim government in Iraq. But Annan will delay further recommendations about what should be done until he consults with other governments, three U.S. officials said.

The delay is expected to last at least a week, one official said.

Annan has decided to restrict his immediate conclusions to agreeing with the administration that the direct elections proposed by Shiite (search) clerics are not feasible before July 1, the officials said.

The administration is looking to the United Nations to help restore self-rule in Iraq in a way that has the approval of a wide range of Iraqi leaders.

Annan is due to receive a firsthand report at the United Nations on Thursday from Lakhdar Brahimi, his special adviser who led a U.N. team to Iraq to assess election possibilities and other possible changes that might be acceptable to a wide range of Iraqi leaders.

While waiting for a U.N. recommendation, the Bush administration has let it be known it intends to stick to the July 1 deadline for transition to Iraqi self-rule but that all other provisions in the plan are subject to revision.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that he was keeping an open mind until he heard from Annan after Brahimi reported to the secretary-general.

After conferring with Brahimi, the official said, Annan intended to meet with ministers from some two dozen countries, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

The plan approved last November by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III and the Governing Council calls for caucuses to be held in Iraq's 18 provinces. Then 15-member selection committees, chosen by the Council and local councils, would screen participants who would select an interim assembly.

The U.S. political control of Iraq would end July 1, and direct elections would not be held in Iraq until next year. U.S. troops would remain in the country after the political hand over is completed.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday, "We'll hear from the secretary-general when he is ready, when they have formulated their ideas and want to talk to us."

"I'm sure there are a number of possibilities that we haven't thought of," Boucher said. "We haven't just made the trip to Iraq. We haven't talked to all the Iraqi people."

Objecting to the complex, indirect plan of selecting an interim assembly, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and other Shiite clerics have demanded direct elections. Some members of the Governing Council are said to want to abandon the caucus approach and have the Council assume sovereignty until elections are held.

Brahimi has said he agrees with al-Sistani that direct elections are the best way to form a government.

Also, Brahimi would like to see the time period between the hand over of power and elections limited as much as possible, with nationwide balloting perhaps late this year or early next year, and the transitional body clearly seen as a short-term caretaker with limited power, said diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York that Brahimi had indicated elections before June 30 were not possible.

"I think we will do our best to accommodate his suggestions. But obviously we'll have to wait and see what specifically he recommends," Negroponte said.