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Blueprint for Iraqi council firming up

Shiite Muslims, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government, will hold a commanding majority on a political council U.S. authorities will set up this month as a forerunner to an Iraqi government, the Associated Press has learned.

The governing council of 25-30 leading Iraqis will be the first step in a 12-to-15 month process that will likely involve a constitutional referendum followed by the first free elections in Iraq in decades, said a senior Western diplomat who laid out to the Associated Press the blueprint of Iraq's path to democracy.

The panel will return some control to Iraqis, though its composition is a sensitive matter. While Shiites are clamoring for a prominent role, Sunnis worry an Iran-style Shiite theocracy could take hold and push them to the fringes of power.

The U.S.-led provisional government is anxious to get an Iraqi council in place in order to dispel a perception that America's mission amounts to colonization rather than liberation.

A Shiite-dominated government would be a sea change for Iraq, which has been ruled by the Sunni minority since the days of Ottoman Turkish rule. The diplomat said Britain and the United States would never allow a fundamentalist Shiite government in Iraq. But he said the council should reflect the demographics of the country, with Shiites in the lead role, and minority Sunnis and Kurds evenly represented.

L. Paul Bremer, Iraq's U.S. civilian administrator, had promised to set up the council by July 15. He said it would be consulted on all major decisions and given the power to choose ministers and fill senior positions. But on Saturday, he left open the possibility the date could be pushed back.

"In the next two weeks I expect to see an Iraqi governing council established. This council will have real power and real responsibilities from the very start," he said.

The council will give a prominent voice to women and include Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities.

Council timeline

JULY 15: Governing Panel of 25-30 prominent Iraqis chosen to consult with coalition administration and to choose ministers and other senior Iraqi posts.

AUGUST: Preliminary committee forms to help decide the formation of a Constitutional Convention.

SEPTEMBER: Constitutional Convention, a group of 200-250 Iraqis, convenes. It is expected to take nine months to a year to produce a draft constitution.

JUNE TO SEPTEMBER 2004: National referendum to ratify the constitution, followed by national elections.