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Iraq Sovreignty May Be Less Than Full, Hints Bush Camp

By Steven R. Weisman

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The Bush administration plans for a new caretaker government in Iraq would place severe limits on its sovereignty, including only partial command over its armed forces and no authority to enact new laws, administration officials said Thursday.

These restrictions to the plan negotiated with Lakhdar Brahimi, the special United Nations envoy, were presented in detail for the first time by top administration officials at congressional hearings this week, culminating in long and intense questioning at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday at a hearing on the goal of returning Iraq to self-rule on June 30.

Only ten weeks from the transfer of sovereignty, the administration is still not sure exactly who will govern in Baghdad, or precisely how they will be selected. A week ago, President Bush agreed to a recommendation by Brahimi to dismantle the existing Iraqi Governing Council, which was hand picked by the United States, and replace it with a caretaker government whose makeup is to be decided next month.

That government would stay in power until elections are held, beginning next year.

The administration’s plans seem likely to face objections on several fronts. Several European and U.N. diplomats said in interviews that they do not think that the United Nations will go along with a Security Council resolution sought by Washington that handcuffs the new Iraq government in its authority over its own armed forces, let alone foreign forces on its soil.

These diplomats, and some American officials, said that if the American military command orders a siege of an Iraqi city, and there is no language calling for an Iraqi government to participate in the decision, the government might not be able to survive protests that could follow.

The diplomats added that it may be unrealistic to expect the new Iraqi government not to demand the right to change Iraqi laws put in place by the American occupation under L. Paul Bremer III, including provisions limiting the influence of Islamic religious law.

Democratic and Republican Senators appeared frustrated on Thursday that so few details are known at this late stage in the transition process, and several focused on the question of who would be in charge of Iraq’s security.

Asked whether the new Iraqi government would have a chance to approve military operations led by American commanders, who would be in charge of both foreign and Iraqi forces, a senior administration said Americans would have the final say.

“The arrangement would be, I think as we are doing today, that we would do our very best to consult with that interim government and take their views into account,” said Marc Grossman, under secretary of state for political affairs. But he added that American commanders will “have the right, and the power, and the obligation” to decide.

That formulation is especially sensitive at a time when American and Iraqi forces are poised to fight for control of Fallujah, a city where thousands of anti-American resisters are surrounded. American generals have warned that an assault on the city will begin within days if the rebels do not surrender their arms, as Iraqi government and local leaders have asked.

In another sphere, Grossman said there would be curbs on the powers of the national conference of Iraqis that Brahimi envisions as a consultative body. The conference, he said, is not expected to pass laws or revise laws adopted under the American occupation.

“We don’t believe that the period between the 1st of July and the end of December should be a time for making new laws,” Grossman said.

As envisioned by Brahimi, the caretaker government is to consist of a president, a prime minister, two vice presidents or deputy prime ministers, and a Cabinet of ministers in each agency. A vast national conference of perhaps a thousand Iraqis would advise it, possibly by establishing a smaller body of perhaps a hundred Iraqis.

His plan supplants an earlier American proposal that would have chosen an Iraqi assembly through caucuses. It also rules out a more recent alternative, which would have handed over control to an expanded version of the current governing council.

Since last November, when the June 30 transfer of sovereignty was approved by President Bush and decreed by Bremer in Iraq, the United States has proclaimed that Iraq will have a full transfer of sovereignty on that date.

Grossman, however, referred in testimony on Wednesday to what he said would be “limited sovereignty,” a phrase he did not repeat Thursday, apparently because it raised eyebrows among those not expecting the administration to acknowledge that the sovereignty would be less than full-fledged.