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Iraq Debate Shifts To Keeping U.S.-Created Council In Place

By Jeffrey Gettleman and Dexter Filkins

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD

As prospects for early elections fade, several Iraqi leaders said Thursday that they wanted the American-appointed Governing Council to remain in place after the United States transferred power back to the Iraqi people on June 30, and that plans were already under way to expand it.

The Iraqi leaders, who include representatives from Iraq’s three major ethnic and religious groups, said that a consensus has emerged to increase the current council of 25 people to as many as 125, and to stay in power until U.N.-assisted elections could be held in early 2005.

The Iraqi leaders said the idea of enlarging the existing council, which has been in play for weeks, crystallized Thursday after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that holding elections for an all-new Iraqi government was impossible before June 30. Annan said he would not object to keeping the governing council in power as long as it was it was significantly changed.

“We have no other choice now,” said Yonadam Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic Party and member of the governing council. “We are in the middle of a process and we can’t have Iraq go in a random direction. The key now is to reach out to more groups so the people feel we represent them.”

Although council members have not decided yet how new members would be selected, several council members agreed that it would be important to demonstrate independence from the American government in order to win the trust of the Iraqi people.

The move to extend the governing council’s rule for several months represented another complication in the Bush administration’s vision for a quick transfer of power. As late as this week, American officials were still clinging to an agreement, signed with Iraqi leaders in November, that called for the governing council to be replaced on June 30 and a new Iraqi government to be selected by nationwide caucuses.