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UN interim plan leaves clerics and politicians on sidelines

From James Bone in New York

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI’S plan for a “caretaker government” in Iraq, welcomed by President Bush and Tony Blair at the White House summit yesterday, deliberately marginalises the country’s rival politicians in favour of competent professionals.

The UN envoy, a former Algerian Foreign Minister and self-declared secularist, is trying to lead Iraq away from the ethnic and sectarian politics that now dominate the country, partly as a legacy of the exiled opposition to Saddam Hussein.

UN sources say that the plan does, however, allow for an ethnic split of the presidency and two vice-presidents, with a representative of the Shia majority taking the senior position and a Kurd and Arab Sunni the two subordinate posts. But the presidency itself will be largely ceremonial and the powers of the Cabinet will be circumscribed until elections can be held.

The prime minister and 20 to 30 Cabinet ministers who actually run the interim government will be technocrats chosen for their “honesty, integrity and competence”.

As soon as sovereignty is restored on July 1, the existing 25-member Iraqi Governing Council will be shut down, leaving the former exiles, including Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, who now serve on the hand-picked body, to fend for themselves.

The UN will help to organise a national conference in July, which will be made up of 500 to 1,500 delegates selected by a committee of judges and other prominent citizens. That gathering will in turn elect a consultative assembly to work alongside the caretaker government. But the political powers of both bodies will be strictly limited.

Some people had called for the national conference to pick the new Cabinet. But Mr Brahimi has deliberately separated the two for fear that squabbling over the composition of the new government would derail the conference.

Instead, he is proposing that the national conference take place only after the new caretaker government is already in place. The prime minister and the Cabinet will be chosen by the UN in consultation with the coalition, the Governing Council and Iraqi bodies such as universities, trade unions and professional associations. Although elected by the national conference, the consultative assembly will have no legislative power.

Mr Brahimi was summoned back to Iraq early this year when Ayatalloh Ali al-Sistani, the Shia leader, rejected the coalition’s plan for a series of regional caucuses to choose a government to run the country until elections at the end of next year. Ayatollah al-Sistani wanted direct national elections to form a new government before the transfer of power. But UN officials feared that an immediate poll would give the upper hand to extremists, particularly the religious parties that have sprung up around mosques.

Mr Brahimi, who is considered suspect by some Islamic radicals because he served in an Algerian government that cracked down on Islamists at home, ruled out such a rapid poll. He proposed instead that the coalition’s planned elections could be brought forward to January. The caretaker government he is proposing is basically a holding operation until then. “It’s a symbolic re-hatting of a handpicked leadership that will begin to move things in the right direction,” said Nancy Soderberg, vice-president of the International Crisis Group. “That is not to minimise it. It’s important to move it in that direction but the ability to fundamentally change the dynamics on the group in Iraq is limited until there are elections.”

Mr Blair offered broad support to Mr Brahimi’s plan in his talks with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, in New York on Thursday night. “From what I know from the discussions that have taken place is that we’re very much working on the same lines, because in the end we want the same thing,” Mr Blair said. “We want a broad-based Iraqi government. We want an Iraqi government representative of the Iraqi people. Not a dictatorship, not some fanatical government that’s going to threaten the security of the Iraqi people and the rest of the world.”

Mr Brahimi is due to brief the UN Security Council in New York later this month. Many nations say their response depends on the reaction of Iraqis to his plan.

Mr Brahimi briefed key Iraqi figures on his proposals before unveiling them this week and received a warm response.

“The reaction so far has been favourable,” said Ahmad Fawzi, Mr Brahimi’s spokesman. “We certainly feel the coalition is on board with these ideas and all the Iraqis which Mr Brahimi talked to have expressed their support for the framework of his proposal.”