As the United States scrambles to end a dispute with Shia leaders over plans to elect an interim government in Iraq before July, it has emerged that American commanders are seeking to reach out to tribal leaders by relying on a report devised in 1918 by Britain, the country's then ruler.
Lieutenant-Colonel Alan King, head of the Tribal Affairs Bureau set up by the US-led coalition last month, admitted last week that he had been referring to the pages of the British report to fathom Iraq's network of tribal sheikhs - regardless of the fact that it dates back to the First World War.
The revelation is not likely to improve confidence in the ability of the US to sort out the deepening muddle over how it means to relinquish political power to the Iraqi people by this summer. The plan to create an interim government before a 30 June deadline has been in doubt since objections were raised last week by the powerful Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. His words set off mass demonstrations against the proposal in southern Iraq on Thursday.
The American head of the occupying coalition, Paul Bremer, indicated on Friday, after talks in Washington with President Bush, that he will be flexible in how the process might run. He suggested, however, that Ayatollah Sistani's demand for fully fledged direct elections would be impractical. One of the problems Mr Bremer faces is having to deal with the cleric through intermediaries, as Ayatollah Sistani refuses to meet him.
Tomorrow he will travel to New York on an urgent mission to seek help from the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan. The US is increasingly anxious to persuade the UN to return to Iraq and assist in selecting the interim government as well as preparing for the first full election in 2005 and the writing of a constitution. "The UN has a lot of expertise in organising elections, electoral commissions, electoral laws, and has a great deal of expertise it can bring to bear," said Mr Bremer, who will be accompanied by the head of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi.
But it is not clear how far Mr Annan will go to answer the American call. The Secretary General withdraw his staff from Baghdad after a bomb attack on his headquarters there last summer that killed 22 people, including his envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. "The meeting is really for us to listen and see what he has to say, and we'll take it from there," one UN official said. "We're not there to give the seal of approval ... Whatever process is adopted needs to be fair and inclusive, and everybody needs to have a stake in it."
For now, the US envisages setting up caucus meetings in all 18 provinces in Iraq, which would then choose representatives to sit in an interim national assembly. Ayatollah Sistani has denounced the plan, calling for direct elections instead.
"We have always said we're willing to consider refinements," Mr Bremer said after his White House meetings. "There obviously are a number of ways in which these kinds of elections can go forward." But he did not clarify what changes could be made.
The apparent increasing willingness to involve tribal sheikhs in the running of Iraq would seem to be at odds with the vision of a unified state, especially when many question how much authority they have. For Col King the advantages are clear: he receives reports from them on local affairs, a precious commodity since the Iraqi administration fell into decline after the first Gulf War and almost disappeared with the second. His bureau - the Office of Provincial Outreach - was awarded US$900,000 last week to establish "Tribal Democracy Centres", to provide resources to the sheikhs.
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