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On this day, Iraqi leaders display united front

As US plays role of skeptical parent, Iraqi Governing Council doesn't want to look like 25 James Deans.

It happens in every family: The kids want to strike out on their own, and the folks want to keep them under their wing a little bit longer.

Something like that breaking-away process is happening between the United States and Iraq's new leaders - some of them formerly exiled Iraqis the US nurtured and then installed in the interim Iraqi Governing Council.

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The keepers of an ancient civilization may take offense at the parent-child analogy. But it nevertheless comes to mind as members of the US-appointed IGC - the learner's permit of what would be the world's newest democracy - make the rounds in New York at the United Nations and in Washington.

The group was sounding much more rebellious a few days ago, but by a press conference Wednesday at the UN, all talk of impatience or dispute with the power paying the bills was silenced - or at least on hold.

The speculation among skeptical journalists was that the Iraqis, led by Ahmed Chalabi, a former Pentagon protégé, got a talking-to.

Prefacing his remarks with an expression of gratitude to President Bush and the American people for "help[ing] us liberate ourselves from the scourge of Saddam Hussein," Mr. Chalabi said, "We have no disagreement with the US government."

That sounded different from earlier in the week, when Chalabi was saying - most notably in a front-page interview with The New York Times - that he wanted a faster transfer of sovereignty than what the US is proposing.

Another possibility was that once he got to New York, Chalabi - who holds the IGC's month-long rotating presidency - realized his show of independence wasn't going down well. For one thing, there is little enthusiasm aside from the French for a quick power transfer, and even the French appear to have modified their stance.

Chalabi appeared at the packed press conference with two IGC colleagues: Hoshyar Zebari, who holds the council's rotating foreign-minister slot, and Adnan Pachachi, a former UN envoy and Sunni Muslim representative on the council. Mr. Pachachi said he thought completing a constitution by May is realistic, while Mr. Zebari spoke in terms of an ideal full turnover of sovereignty within a year.

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The three representatives displayed a united front, but even US officials say the 25-member council is not united on key issues. In Washington Wednesday, Iraq's White House-appointed administrator, Paul Bremer, acknowledged to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that some IGC members want a quicker handover of responsibilities and political control.

But he said anything faster than what the US is advocating would be mistaken: "No appointed government, even one as honest and dedicated as the Iraqi Governing Council, can have the legitimacy necessary today to take on the difficult issues Iraqis face as they write a constitution and elect a government."

In any case, members of Congress and other Washington policymakers will have a chance to gauge the Iraqis' leadership skills next week, when the IGC members are set to visit the capital. Unless the Iraqis get cold feet, they are expected to claim they could do a better and cheaper job with some of the tasks the occupying authority now controls.

For example, the Iraqis say Mr. Bremer's and the rest of the American authority's dirty laundry is taken to neighboring Kuwait for washing, a job they say Iraqis could do at lower cost.

Demonstrations of independence from the Bush administration's vision could reemerge next week, some experts predict, when the Iraqis get around a divided Congress. But even at the UN, the distancing that takes place in the closest of families was showing.

The press conference venue was itself a symbol of that. The event was held in the small and stuffy meeting room of the UN Correspondents Association, even though a larger official briefing room, with adequate air conditioning and neat rows of baby-blue seating, sat empty upstairs. The Iraqis were not allowed access to that room since they are not an official UN delegation, not yet having officially replaced the Hussein regime.

Apparently, one briefly entertained option was to have the US sponsor the press conference and access the briefing room that way. But the US didn't relish the prospect of the international press blaring its sponsorship of the visiting Iraqis, some correspondents said. And, like adolescents who are testing their independence, the Iraqis didn't want to look like US protectorates anyway.


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