ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT
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U.S., Shiites wrestle over Iraqi self-rule
By John Yaukey | GNS
WASHINGTON - Someone's got to give - soon.
Fortunately for the Bush administration, the standoff with a leading Iraqi cleric over how to transfer governing authority back to the Iraqis may be edging toward compromise, at least temporarily.
At stake is the success of the U.S. campaign in Iraq and potentially the Bush presidency.
United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, now in Iraq to referee the early self-rule process, appears to be having some success finding a place where Bush and the leading political negotiator for the Iraqis might find agreement.
The tension stems from friction between Bush's plan to move gradually toward democracy through caucus-style elections and the adamant desires of a leading Shiite cleric to go straight to direct elections, where each Iraqi gets one vote, this summer.
U.S. and U.N. officials in Iraq fear the country will not be safe enough for direct elections this summer or have the necessary infrastructure such as voting lists. The majority Shiites, long oppressed under Saddam Hussein, fear caucuses will dilute their power.
``We need to organize elections as early as possible but not earlier than possible,'' Brahimi said. He implied that Bush's caucus plan is unacceptable but also that leading Iraqis are willing to negotiate on the timing for direct elections.
Political stability and security on the streets are the twin pillars of the Bush plan in Iraq.
Bush wants to transfer authority to some form of Iraqi leadership June 30 to assure U.S. voters and Iraqis alike that the United States is going to get out of Iraq soon.
However, the security side suffered severe blows recently from tandem car bombings that killed more than 100 Iraqis.
Where this goes next will depend in large part on what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan says in the next week or so when he makes his recommendation on how the sovereignty process in Iraq should unfold.
That's an important proclamation for both sides.
Bush cannot afford a protracted argument over how to transfer authority back to the Iraqis, and Annan can help simplify the process.
Annan also gives the leading Iraqi players someone they can make concessions to who is respected across the Muslim-Arab world.
All that said, minefields await.
Violence will make elections difficult.
Elections are sure to incite violence.
``We have predicted that as we come closer and closer to ... handing over sovereignty of this country to the Iraqi people, there would be a spike in violence,'' said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.
Bush's balancing act
The coming months will test Bush's skills at balancing often violently conflicting interests in Iraq.
The president acquiesced to the Shiites' early election demands by postponing the writing of a constitution, but there is only so much further he can go. As the Shiites boldly assert themselves, Bush will have to guard minority rights.
The Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq - the nation's two other major ethnic groups - both oppose the direct elections that the Shiites want, fearing an immediate Shiite domination and the rapid loss of their rights.
If Bush yields again to the Shiites - at least in a conspicuous way - he could appear to be losing control, potentially sparking skirmishes or civil war as Iraq's ethnic groups rush to cover their assets.
Annan can help by giving Bush cover to make concessions that carry an international blessing and thus appear authoritative.
It appears that Bush is willing to give way on the caucus process, so long as he has a legitimate government to hand authority to this summer.
``We are focused on the handover of sovereignty on June 30th, as explicitly outlined,'' said Daniel Senor, adviser to the U.S.-led civilian authorities in Iraq.
That could mean expanding the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim ruling body established by the U.S.-led civil authorities, and extending its lifetime. No one is terribly happy with that, which may be its saving grace.
The Shiites, who comprise more than 60 percent of the Iraqi population, are largely running the Iraqi side of the self-rule process through their most respected cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Like Bush, Sistani is limited in how much he can concede.
His millions of followers routinely gather by the thousands to demonstrate for direct elections.
If they perceive a cave-in or betrayal by Sistani to Bush, the often-fractious Shiite community could splinter, leaving Bush with a political herd of cats to contend with.
The young radical Shiites are waiting for just such a power vacuum to rush in and fill.