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Besieged, US loses sight of Baghdad big picture

Baghdad, Dec. 28: The US has backed away from several of its more ambitious initiatives to transform Iraq’s economy, political system and security forces as attacks on US troops have escalated and the timetable for ending the civil occupation has accelerated.

Plans to privatise state-owned businesses — a key part of a larger Bush administration goal to replace the socialist economy of deposed President Saddam Hussein with a free-market system — have been dropped over the past few months. So too has a demand that Iraqis write a constitution before a transfer of sovereignty.

With the administration’s plans tempered by time and threat, the US administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, and his deputies are now focused on forging compromises with Iraqi leaders and combating a persistent insurgency in order to meet a July 1 deadline to transfer sovereignty to a provisional government.

“There’s no question that many of the big-picture items have been pushed down the list or erased completely,” said a senior US official involved in Iraq’s reconstruction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Right now, everyone’s attention is focused (on) doing what we need to do to hand over sovereignty by next summer.”

The new approach, US diplomats said, calls into question the prospects for initiatives touted by conservative strategists to fashion Iraq into a secular, pluralistic, market-driven nation. While the diplomats maintain those goals are still attainable, the senior official said, “ideology has become subordinate to the schedule.”

“The Americans are coming to understand that they cannot change everything they want to change in Iraq,” said Adel Abdel-Mehdi, a senior leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia political party that which is cooperating with the U.S. occupation authority. “They need to let the Iraqi people decide the big issues.”

Bremer’s hope that Iraqis could write a constitution before he departs had been intended to prevent extremists from dominating the drafting process. US officials acknowledge that risk exists, but said it had been outweighed by the need to end the civil occupation by the summer. The presence of US troops in Iraq will go on longer, military officials have said.

By handing over sovereignty first, the administration has ceded veto power over the final document and is forcing Iraqis to confront a raft of contentious issues, from Kurdish demands for autonomy to Shia demands for Islamic law, without a referee.

With goodwill toward Americans ebbing fast, Bremer and his lieutenants have also concluded that it does not make sense to cause new social disruptions or antagonise Iraqis allied with the US. Selling off state-owned factories would lead to thousands of layoffs, which could prompt labour unrest in a country where 60 per cent of the population is already unemployed.

An unwillingness to assume other risks has also scuttled, at least temporarily, plans to overhaul a national food-rationing programme that was a cornerstone of Hussein’s welfare state. Several senior officials want to replace monthly handouts of flour, cooking oil, beans and other staples — received by more than 90 per cent of Iraqis — with a cash payment of about $15.

“Its a great idea the academics thought up, but it wasn’t in tune with the political realities,” said a US official. “Right now, we don’t need to be adding any more challenges to those we already have.”

A similar philosophy extends to the disarmament of various militias backed by political groups. Although the occupation authority wanted to quickly disband the Kurdish peshmerga militias by moving members into the new army and police force, US officials have not pressed the issue with Kurdish leaders, who remain strong supporters of the American occupation. US officials are also taking a measured approach toward a Shia militia whose sponsoring party is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

At the same time, the occupation authority has substantially decreased the number of new recruits it intends to put through a three-month boot camp designed to build an improved, professionally trained army. Instead, the occupation authority is increasing the ranks of police officers and civil-defence troops, who can be deployed faster but receive far less training and screening than the soldiers.

Baghdad bomb kills 3

Guerrillas detonated a powerful bomb in a busy Baghdad shopping district today, killing a US soldier and two Iraqi children, while another US soldier died in an attack on a convoy west of the capital.

The ambushes came a day after coordinated suicide bomb, mortar and machinegun attacks in the holy city of Karbala killed 19 people — five Bulgarian and two Thai soldiers and 12 Iraqis — the deadliest strike on foreign troops since the capture of Saddam Hussein.

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