Thu, May 22, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Timetable for a new government remains elusive


It sounded so specific a few weeks ago: The US, with great fanfare, convened a conference of Iraqi political figures and emerged hours later with a timetable -- some form of interim government in early June.

Now the deadline has been pushed back until mid-July, at the earliest.

Six weeks after the US military took Baghdad and former president Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed, Iraq remains without a formal government. Ministries are operating under American auspices, staffed by Iraqis who know their employment may be limited.

The US has held two large conferences, hosting scores of Iraqi political figures for discussions on what form the interim government should take. But exactly how and when that will be done has never been stated specifically.

Making those plans more urgent is unwillingness among Iraqis to tolerate a long-term US military occupation.

Yesterday, Iraq's US civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said that a national conference that will pick Iraq's new interim government probably won't be held until mid-July.

"I don't think it will be in June," Bremer told reporters during a tour of the newly reopened al-Karkh jail on the outskirts of Baghdad. "We're talking now like sometime in July to get a national conference put together."

When pressed further, Bremer replied: "Mid-July."

The delay marks a substantial change from the timetable outlined after an April 28 conference with Iraqi political leaders by US President George W. Bush's envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Three weeks ago, US officials had suggested they were trying to come up with the best government they could cobble together quickly, then perfect it on the fly. Now, Bremer speaks of building a "representative government," a towering undertaking in a society riven by ethnic and political rifts -- and one that will take time.

"This is going to be a difficult job, as indeed the Iraqi leaders -- every one of them -- recognized," he said Sunday. "We have to deal first with ... law and order, basic services, getting people paid."

One official at the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance acknowledged that the process of setting up an interim authority had been slowed by the need to represent all segments of society.

He said the plan was to assemble about 300 representatives -- the same number as attended the April meeting -- "and that out of that meeting will emerge ... the interim authority."

The Iraqi politicians involved, presumably unwilling to criticize US officials, have said little about the delay.

The Iraqi National Congress, an exile group, and six other organizations have been meeting with the US and are expected to form part of the nucleus of a new Iraqi government. Others include the two major Kurdish groups from northern Iraq -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party -- and a Shiite Muslim group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Many Iraqis, especially former government workers, are impatient to get things going.

Other than a one-time US$20 emergency payment, most have not been paid since the war began March 20.

"The sooner the new government is formed, the better," said Raeeda Sadiq, a 35-year-old accountant at the Finance Ministry. "We do not know who to go to with our complaints as civil servants."

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