The US occupation administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, is holding talks in Baghdad on Saturday to speed up the restoration of independence – as early as June according to US media reports.

After attending crisis talks at the White House this week, Bremer reportedly told members of the Iraqi Governing Council late on Friday the White House had agreed to accelerate the move to independence.

The moves represent a sharp departure from existing US policy. Washington had earlier insisted a full handover of sovereignty would occur only after a new constitution was drafted and general elections were held.

But the US now appears ready to set up a transitional Iraqi government and hold national elections later – though it is likely to keep substantial forces in the country.

Under the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1511, a timetable has to be drafted by 15 December.

Afghan model

Iraqi politicians sponsored by the Bush administration welcomed the news of an early establishment of an interim national government.

"This is good for everyone," pro-US council member Ahmad Chalabi told the New York Times. "We will have the US forces here, but they will change from occupiers to a force that is here at the invitation of the Iraqi government."

There is a precedent for the plan: Afghanistan. A notable figure, Hamid Karzai, was appointed as interim leader before a constitution was drawn up and elections have been called.

But critics have often pointed out that Iraq lacks a single figure on which a majority of politicians or citizens can agree even for a transitional period.

Bremer signalled there would be a meeting of tribal and other leaders from Iraq's 18 provinces in the spring of 2004, ABC news in the US reported. The meeting would select delegates for a new Iraqi parliament.

Struggling for stability

The latest moves come as mounting resistance attacks against US-led occupation forces and coalition soldiers have left the Americans struggling for stability in Iraq.

An Iraqi political analyst, Nathim al-Jasour, told Aljazeera the US initiative comes as a result of the “political and military failure in Iraq”.

“The current political situation in the country proves that the United States has failed to achieve any of its goals in Iraq during these seven months of occupation,” he said.

One US soldier was killed and two were wounded in a bomb attack in Baghdad on Saturday. Four more Americans were killed in Iraq on Friday, while seven Iraqi fighters also died and a Portuguese journalist was abducted by unknown gunmen.

The deaths have raised to 161 the number of US soldiers killed in combat in Iraq since 1 May, when US President George Bush declared major hostilities over.