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Handover of power may be delayed, says senator

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

05 April 2004

The debate in America over the transfer of power in Iraq went public yesterday as senior Republican and Democratic senators suggested the 30 June deadline for the handover would have to be dropped, given the risk of Iraq sliding into civil war.

Asked if the handover would have to be pushed back, Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee, said bluntly: "It may be."

There were still far too many questions about what would happen after the scheduled date, he told the ABC-TV This Week news programme. "I'm haunted by the 30 June problem. We have to have security. We have to give sovereignty to someone, but to whom? This is an extremely serious problem."

The doubts aired by Mr Lugar are telling, coming from one of the most thoughtful and sober foreign-policy specialists on Capitol Hill, and a so far loyal supporter of President George Bush's policy on Iraq.

They capture the uncertainties over the handover swirling within the administration, that have now been cast into even sharper relief by the horrific murder of four American private security contractors in Fallujah last week, and yesterday's violence in Najaf.

The reaction, from the American military in Iraq and in Washington, has been that the incident cannot, and will not, deflect the US from a mission which has the support of most Iraqis. Fallujah, it is argued, was an exception. The perpetrators of the atrocity will be captured and punished.

But the June deadline was mainly dictated by the domestic political calendar, so Mr Bush could go into the November election claiming sovereignty was passing smoothly to a civilian authority in Baghdad.

Instead, political necessities in the US are at loggerheads with the realities on the ground in Iraq, where the dire security situation even forced a planned trade fair to be cancelled last week.

"Clearly the militias have not disarmed. If these militias start to fight each other, it's civil war," Mr Lugar said. But the US could not withdraw. "We are there, while the Iraqi police aren't ready at all. Indeed, they've retreated."

These forebodings of a Republican realist are echoed by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the foreign relations committee. Training Iraqi forces would take "years not months", said Mr Biden, an advocate of putting the United Nations in charge of the political rebuilding of Iraq.

"We're going to end up with a civil war in Iraq if in fact we decide we can turn this over, including the bulk of the security, to the Iraqis between now and then [30 June]." In a comment article in The Washington Post yesterday, Mr Biden went further, urging Mr Bush to convene a special summit on Iraq with Washington's traditional allies in Europe, including countries such as France and Germany which opposed the war in Iraq.

He also called on the President to seek a UN resolution that would create a high commissioner who would take over the management of the political transition. Bush officials have acknowledged they are looking at a possible new Security Council resolution, but give no hint of its contents. Whatever happens on 30 June, ultimate governing power in Iraq will still reside with the US, though how it will be exercised remains largely a mystery, even to Mr Lugar.

He complained yesterday that the White House had given his committee no idea of who might be the ambassador at the head of a embassy in Baghdad with a staff of 3,000, the largest such US diplomatic mission in the world.

This was a "huge new exposure of Americans", he said. "I would have thought at this point there would have been a more comprehensive plan." But it was a former cabinet member who spelt out most harshly the dilemma facing the Bush team, seven months before November.

There had to be retaliation for Fallujah, Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state for President Bill Clinton, declared. "But retaliation provokes counter-retaliation that only makes matters worse."

There should be some consideration about extending the [30 June] date, she argued, before noting that "sometimes a deadline ends up being a bullet [in] the head of the people who made the deadline".