WASHINGTON – Trying to salvage a timetable for Iraqi self-rule, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) was recalled from Baghdad on Thursday for brainstorming consultations at the White House and the United Nations amid an American scramble to overcome growing Shiite (search) resistance to the U.S. plan.
While the Bush administration said it intended to hold to its July 1 deadline for handing over control in Baghdad, large anti-American protests broke out in Basra (search). A leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, continued to press for direct, popular elections -- rather than the U.S. plan -- as the way to create Iraq's new government.
Threatening the U.S. blueprint, an aide to the cleric said in Kuwait that if al-Sistani's advice was rejected, a Muslim edict would be issued to deny legitimacy to any council elected under the American plan. Even some Sunnis respect the Shiite al-Sistani, the aide said.
In light of al-Sistani's demands, U.S. officials said, the Bush administration is reviewing its plan for transition to Iraqi rule, a plan that would include American troops remaining in the country after July 1. Al-Sistani has a reputation for being a moderate, but his stiff stance has cast doubt on whether the administration's plan can be retained intact.
Administration officials were exploring compromises that would provide more direct voter participation by Iraqis on the issues of transition to self-rule and the role of U.S. troops, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Obviously we are concerned about working with Iraqis," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We are concerned about public opinion. We want to satisfy the needs and demands of the Iraqi people."
Adnan Pachachi, the current Iraqi Governing Council president, said Thursday that he believes al-Sistani can be convinced that elections cannot be held right away. Still, Pachachi said, "We agreed that there is room for improvement, there are many, many ideas to make it more transparent and inclusive ... whereby the Iraqi people, in a very obvious way, can manifest their desires."
Bremer was to meet Friday at the White House with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, and probably with Bush. Bremer will see Secretary of State Colin Powell and probably Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, as well.
On Monday, Bremer is to meet in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi leaders to try to pave the way for the return of U.N. officials to Iraq and for a U.N. role in Iraqi elections.
In Basra, meanwhile, a crowd estimated by British soldiers at up to 30,000 people turned out in the streets of Iraq's second-largest city. Protesters chanted, "No, no to America, yes, yes to al-Sistani."
The United States wants regional caucuses -- whose members would be at least partially appointed -- to choose a new Iraqi parliament, which would then select an Iraqi administration. The Bush administration says security is too poor and voter records too incomplete for direct elections right now.
The clerics want direct elections, fearing the caucuses may be rigged to keep Shiites out of power. Al-Sistani and other clerics wield great influence among Iraq's Shiites, believed to make up about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
Bremer, in interviews this week with American television networks, said it was not clear whether Shiites were in the majority inside Iraq because Iraq had not had a census in nearly two decades.
Boucher noted that Iraqis were able to protest in Iraq in a way they could not under Saddam Hussein. "The fact that there are demonstrations in Iraq is fundamentally a good thing," he said.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday it was too early to tell whether the deadline for transition would have to be changed.
Praising the United Nations for expertise in overseeing elections, the administration also is looking for U.N. help in dealing with Shiite 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.
"We want to encourage the United Nations' role. We want to do what we can to provide help with security for the U.N. people who might go out," Boucher said.