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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer insisted Thursday that the United States will hand power to Iraqis by June 30 and won support from the United Nations for moving ahead without immediate elections. The favored U.S. option is to expand the existing 25-member Iraqi Governing Council.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan backed Washington's claims that a direct vote before the June 30 deadline is impossible. But he did not offer alternatives to help resolve the debate on how to transfer sovereignty among Americans, Iraq's Governing Council and powerful Shiite Muslim clerics, who derailed U.S. plans by demanding an early direct vote.
"There are 133 days before sovereignty returns to an Iraqi government on June 30th," Bremer said. "Changes in the mechanism performing an interim government are possible but the date holds."
The Bush administration is under pressure from its Iraqi partners and international allies to yield power and end the military occupation as soon as possible. It is also eager to establish a working government and give Iraqi security forces a frontline role against guerrilla violence well ahead of November presidential elections.
Iraqi leaders have largely turned against the original American plan to use regional caucuses as the basis for the new government. The Bush administration hopes Annan will now endorse an alternative that would expand the Governing Council and hand it power to rule until elections, a U.S. official told The Associated Press.
Support is growing within the U.S.-appointed council for expanding the body, several members said Thursday.
The council is also due to finish drafting an interim constitution next week, resolving the key questions of federalism and the role of Islam in the government. While calling for any charter to acknowledge the Islamic nature of Iraq, Bremer said the law must be based on secular democratic principles.
"There are literally dozens of ways in which to carry out this very complicated task" of transferring power to Iraqis, Bremer told reporters, including variations on the caucuses or "varying other kinds of elections, partial elections."
In New York, Annan did not give any recommendations on how to pick a provisional government. He has reportedly said he won't weigh in on that issue before Feb. 25.
But after his special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, briefed representatives of 45 nations and the European Union on his weeklong visit to Iraq, Annan told reporters an early vote was not feasible.
"We shared with them our sense -- and the emerging consensus or understanding -- that elections cannot be held before the end of June, that the June 30 date for the handover of sovereignty must be respected, and that we need to find a mechanism to create a caretaker government and then prepare the elections ... sometime later," Annan said.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, disrupted the American plan for the handover by calling for an early election and opposing caucuses. Most of the Governing Council's 25 current members, who agreed to the caucuses in November, now say they want that formula dropped.
On Thursday, insurgents killed two American soldiers in a roadside bombing near Khaldiyah, 50 miles west of the capital, the U.S. command said. The deaths brought to 545 the number of American service members who have died since the war began March 20.
The U.S. plan calls for Iraqi elections in 2005, but Shiite leaders say they want a vote sooner, even if it can't be before June 30. Shiites, believed to make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, would likely dominate any elected government.
On Thursday, Ahmad al-Barak, a Shiite council member, said after meeting with al-Sistani that the Shiites were hoping for an early election but would be willing to wait.
"I think that elections can be held after five months from now and in that case we have no problem," al-Barak said. "Power could be transferred to the Iraqi people through the Governing Council or any other body."
Expanding the council could make it more broadly representative, but Shiites have said any expansion must respect the current alignment of power. Shiites now hold 13 of the 25 council seats.
The Governing Council is also drafting an interim constitution due to take effect at the end of the month. Bremer, who must approve the document, suggested this week he would block an attempt to make Islam the primary basis of law in Iraq.
In the current draft, Islam would be "a source of inspiration for the law," but not the main source, according to Bremer. Setting Islamic law as the primary source could lead to major changes in Iraq's largely secular system, particularly concerning women's rights.
On Thursday, Bremer said the council agreed in November on the principle that the constitution will "recognize the Islamic character of the majority of the Iraqi people and that there should be freedom of religion, freedom of religious practices and equality before the law for all individuals."
"I'm assuming the Governing Council will stick with what it said," he said, adding an agreement will be reached on the document "on schedule by next week."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)