Iraq's new president said Sunday that his government would allow U.S. commanders to retain overall control over U.S. and international forces in Iraq after limited authority is handed over to Iraq on June 30, offering the interim Iraqi leadership's first public endorsement of the Bush administration's post-occupation military policy.
The newly named interim president, Ghazi Yawar, said in an interview that the new Iraqi government wanted control over all military forces in the country but recognized that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to wield such power over international troops.
"Unfortunately, there is a big difference between dreams and reality," Yawar, a Sunni Muslim tribal sheik, said in a 40-minute conversation in his office. "Our dream, or our wish, is that the Iraqi high command should have the final say, but due to practical and very obvious tactical reasons, these national forces have to be under the command of the strongest of that corps."
When international forces face threats, he said, commanders "cannot wait until the government is awake and then you convene and then you decide on it."
But he said that he and other Iraqi leaders expected to have "very close coordination and consultation" with U.S. commanders. The commanders, he said, should seek the consent of the Iraqi government whenever possible, particularly before conducting major operations. "We do not want to deter their movement, but at the same time, we have to make sure that no negative political consequences come out of these operations," he said. "We want these forces to act as an invited force, not as an occupying force."
The issue of how much autonomy the U.S. military will have in Iraq after June 30 is a subject of debate at the U.N. Security Council, where a U.S.-sponsored resolution on Iraq's future is being discussed. Iraq's new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, sent a letter to the council over the weekend in which he said the issues of coordination between Iraqi and U.S. officials should be decided by a joint national security committee that would include Iraqi security officials and U.S. commanders. He said the group, which he would chair, would "reach agreement of the full range of fundamental security and policy issues, including policy on sensitive offensive operations."
Yawar said he expected the military relationship to be "a partnership or a joint venture between both countries."
"We don't see any problems," he said.
Despite his endorsement of U.S. military policy, Yawar urged the Bush administration to tolerate an interim government that does not always accede to the wishes of U.S. officials, saying that it is in the best interests of Iraq and the United States to have a transitional administration that asserts its independence. "Iraq has to be a live-and-let-live society," he said.
"This friendship should be based on mutual national interests as well as mutual respect," he said. "The United States' interests will be well served by a strong Iraqi government that believes in strategic friendship. The strength of this government is from the unified support it gets from most of the Iraqis. To be accepted by most Iraqis, you have to be independent in your vision."
Yawar, who was named interim president last week, plans to depart Iraq on Monday for Sea Island, Ga., where he will meet with heads of state at the economic summit of the Group of Eight industrialized democracies. Before he returns to Iraq, he said he would stop in Washington to tell U.S. officials that the interim government needs to be regarded as fully independent by Iraqis if it is going to prevail.
"I'm sure the United States does not want a weak friend or ally that goes up in smoke with the last American chopper leaving Iraq, like what happened in Saigon," he said. "They want to have a deeply rooted Iraqi leadership that draws its acceptance and legitimacy from the heart of the Iraqi nation."
Yawar, an engineer who returned from exile last year, said he never sought to become the president, and until 10 days ago, most Iraqi politicians did not expect him to get the job. Although chosen to serve on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, Yawar never emerged as a dominant member, largely because of his proclivity to speak his mind and his reluctance to ally himself with a political party.
But he quickly became the council's near-unanimous choice for president when Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy charged with sorting out Iraq's political transition, expressed interest in naming another council member to the post. Several members regarded the other candidate, former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, as being too close to the United States -- a characterization he denies -- and threw their support behind Yawar.
Brahimi offered the presidency to Pachachi, who turned it down. The U.N. envoy then offered the job to Yawar, who readily accepted.
Yawar said he was urged by intermediaries representing Brahimi and the U.S. occupation authority to withdraw his candidacy in exchange for another position in the interim government. "I said, 'I cannot do so because I did not put my name in. Go to these political and social forces who support me and convince them to accept that I won't be in the race. But I cannot withdraw. I cannot be a deserter,' " he recalled telling the intermediaries.
Yawar was regarded by fellow council members as an ideal person to be president because of his ability to work across cultures, embrace the country's two dominant religious groups and draw upon tribal allegiances. He is the nephew of the leader of one of Iraq's largest tribes, the Shamar, which includes almost as many Shiite Muslims as Sunnis.
Yawar, who dresses in gold-fringed Arab robes and wears a crisp white headdress, speaks English fluently and knows the United States well. He said he spent three years studying engineering at George Washington University in the 1980s before returning to Saudi Arabia, where his family was living in exile. Prior to coming home to Iraq -- he was born in the northern city of Mosul -- he worked as an engineer in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Yawar said the task ahead is daunting. As president, his role is largely ceremonial, but he must approve, in conjunction with two vice presidents, decisions made by Allawi's council of ministers. More important, he said, will be using his position to unite his violence-scarred nation.
The challenge, he said, was crystallized by a congratulatory phone call he received from his 6-year-old nephew. "He said, 'So now you're the president, are you going to execute 50 percent of the Iraqi society?' " Yawar recalled.
"That broke my heart. That means our job is more complicated than we imagined. It's not just rehabilitating a nation but creating a new way of thinking in Iraq. When a kid thinks the role of a president is to kill half of his people -- God help us."