The US has made clear that the transfer of sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government on 30 June will be a limited affair, and that ultimate authority will reside at a gigantic new US embassy in Baghdad and with the military occupation force.
In sometimes heated hearings on Capitol Hill this week, senior Bush administration officials admitted they did not know who would be in the new government, precisely what powers it would exercise, nor the exact shape of the new Security Council resolution that Washington is seeking at the United Nations.
Marc Grossman, Under-Secretary of State for political affairs, said the government would put "a very important Iraqi face" on many aspects of the country's life. But the US military, not the Iraqi security forces, would be in charge of all security matters.
Asked what would happen if the temporary government acted at variance with US foreign policy - such as by seeking closer ties with Iran - Mr Grossman implied that would not be tolerated. "That is why we want to have an American ambassador in Iraq," he noted cryptically.
The limitations can only complicate US efforts to win a fresh resolution at the UN, whose special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been finalising the new government. Its main task will be to prepare for elections next year, but some Security Council members may now balk at conferring UN legitimacyon a new Iraqi government whose powers are so limited.
The admissions by Mr Grossman come as pressure is intensifying on the Pentagon to bolster the US occupying force, and amid evidence that the costs of the occupation are rising even faster than the administration predicted. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that military costs this year would run $4.7bn (£2.7bn) ahead of estimates.
In a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, Senator John McCain of Arizona, President Bush's unsuccessful rival for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, demanded the Pentagon send a division, roughly 15,000 men, to Iraq to reinforce the 135,000 US contingent there.
The President had to make clear the size of the commitment needed to prevail in Iraq, said Mr McCain, a strong supporter of the March 2003 invasion. "He needs to be perfectly frank: bringing peace and democracy to Iraq is an enormous endeavour that will be very expensive, difficult and long."
But more troops, coupled with what from 1 July will be the largest US embassy worldwide, with some 3,000 staff, will only underline how Washington will stay in charge, whatever nominal sovereignty is handed over to Iraqis. Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said: "On 1 July, Iraqis will wake up and there's going to be 160,000 troops and a US ambassador pulling the strings. How does that take the American face off the occupation?"
*Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, yesterday said he could unleash suicide bombers if US forces attacked the holy Shia city of Najaf, and called on the nation to unite to expel Iraq's occupiers. US troops are poised just outside Najaf and have vowed to kill or capture Sadr and destroy his Army of Mehdi militia, which has clashed with foreign forces across southern and central Iraq.
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