WASHINGTON – Trying to salvage a timetable for Iraqi self-rule, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III (search), is returning from Baghdad for U.N. and White House consultations, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Bremer is due to meet on Friday with Condoleezza Rice (search), President Bush's national security adviser, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and probably with Bush, as well, a U.S. official said.
On Monday, Bremer will meet in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) and Iraqi leaders to pave the way for the return of U.N. officials to Iraq and for a U.N. role in Iraqi elections, three U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity.
Before those talks, Bremer will consult again with Powell, who has reached out to the United Nations (search) in an effort to strengthen international support for U.S. reconstruction efforts in postwar Iraq.
While Bremer's meetings at the White House will be billed as the kind of consultations he holds periodically in Washington the stakes clearly were high.
More than 20,000 people demonstrated in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, on Thursday. The protesters chanted, "No, no to America, yes, yes to al-Sistani." That was a reference to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani's (search) demands that transition to Iraqi rule and the presence of American peacekeeping troops be submitted to the voters.
The U.S. plan for transition to Iraqi rule by July 1, with American troops remaining in the country, is under review in light of the Shiite leader's demands. He has a reputation of being a moderate, but his tough stance has cast doubt whether the administration's plan will have to be revised.
Having initially sought to minimize a U.N. role in the country the Bush administration, under pressure from allies who opposed last year's war, has switched gears and called for U.N. participation in reconstruction efforts.
Praising the United Nations for expertise in overseeing elections, the administration is looking for U.N. help in dealing with Shiite (search) demands.
There is no mention of a U.N. role in the agreement Bremer signed last November with the Iraqi Governing Council for the transition timetable.
With the search for a compromise under way within the administration and in quiet discussions with prominent Iraqis, deadline, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday it's too early to tell whether the June 30 deadline for transition will have to be changed.
The ayatollah demanded last weekend that any agreement to permit U.S. forces to remain in postwar Iraq be submitted to directly elected representatives. The current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (search) agreed last November that the next government could be chosen in regional caucuses, not full-scale elections.
The decision to turn over control to Iraqis by June 30 remains a constant goal, administration officials said. It was not clear how the goal could be sustained, however, if a compromise cannot be reached with the Shiite leader.
"It's too early to tell," Rumsfeld said. "There are going to be ups and downs and zigs and zags in the road."
What has to be worked out, he said, is whether it's more important to have elections and delay transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis or to transfer sovereignty and have elections afterward in support of the power shift.
One idea under consideration is to hold a referendum on transferring control, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
At a news conference Thursday in Baghdad, the president of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, said he believed al-Sistani could be convinced that elections cannot be held right away.
But even if al-Sistani relented on immediate elections, "he wants to see a better way of electing the legislature, better than the one proposed" in the Nov. 15 agreement, Pachachi said.