BAGHDAD—A fight brewing within the U.S.-appointed Iraqi government could sabotage the Bush administration's dream of building a secular Arab democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
As the July 1 date to dissolve the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council draws nearer, some council members are pushing to remain in office even after a new national assembly is created to replace the council.
Under the proposal, which has been discussed only in private meetings, the group might advise the new government or, some argue, cast deciding votes on legislation passed by the assembly.
"The danger is that the general assembly would make a decision and the governing council would disagree," said Baghdad University political science professor Hamid Shihad. "There would be political chaos."
It's not clear how many council members are behind the push, but a series of interviews points to a coalition of Sunni Muslims, who dominated Iraq under Saddam but are a minority in the country and on the council. They're apparently being joined by Iraqis such as former exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim who doesn't have much support from average Iraqis but remains the darling of some officials in Vice President Cheney's office and civilians in the Pentagon.
Opponents of the idea say it's a ploy by council members who fear they don't stand a chance in local elections for the assembly. Some also fear the Bush administration might quietly support the notion as a means of maintaining U.S. influence in Iraq.
"They want (the council) to have some special status and some power," said Adnan Pachachi, the governing council's current president, a rotating position. "I think it's probably a reluctance on the part of some who have power to let go."
A battle over an attempt by the council to continue past July could tear apart a nation already wracked by violence, said Hajim al Hassani, a spokesman for council member Mohsen Abdul Hameed. A series of bombings in the last few weeks has killed dozens and wounded hundreds in apparent turf battles among sectarian and political groups.
An unelected senate of people appointed by the American occupation administration could only exacerbate the situation, al Hassani said.
"There would be no democracy in Iraq—that's the danger when you put yourself into power instead of the people putting you in," al Hassani said.
While no one has taken responsibility for the violence, the motivation is obvious, said council member Abdul Karim al Muhammadawi. Those who want control, he said, are going to play on sectarian divisions to lead Iraq to civil war.
The situation, some say, points to what average Iraqis have known all along: In creating the governing council, the Americans foisted a group of politicians on a population that, at the very least, dislikes them. Many of the council members were exiles during Saddam Hussein's reign, and many Iraqis think they left when times were hard and have returned to grab a piece of the nation's wealth.
In a country where many lack electricity or running water, council members are carted around in Lexus sport utility vehicles and Mercedes coupes with dark windows. They rarely make public appearances and are surrounded by armed guards, even behind the walls of the compounds where many of them live.
Their offices are inside a coalition compound that's surrounded by concrete barriers, concertina wire, security checkpoints and U.S. soldiers. Iraqis who don't have appointments, which are hard to obtain, aren't allowed past the outer perimeter.
One recent evening, council member Abdul Hameed whooshed into his headquarters in a convoy of three white SUVs and a black Mercedes. The first truck pulled up to the building, its bumper a few feet from the front door, stopped for a moment and then skidded away in reverse. It was a decoy. The second truck shot into position at the door, with the Mercedes behind, and the other truck backed up, its high beams on. A troupe of men with AK-47s jumped out. Abdul Hameed was rushed out of one of the vehicles and into the building.
"They couldn't walk down the street, they couldn't speak in front of crowds," said Sadoun al Dulame, the director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an independent think tank and polling agency. "If they represent the Iraqi people, why are they afraid of going outside why do they ask the American troops to protect them?"
In an October poll by al Dulame's organization, 1,620 Iraqis across the nation were given a list of council names and asked whether they had favorable or unfavorable impressions of them. Four of the 25 members rated a favorable mention more than 40 percent of the time, and one of them was later assassinated.
Ali Nasser, a salesman at a downtown Baghdad electronics shop, said the council is pointless. "They cannot control the situation in Iraq," Nasser said. "Saddam is gone, and now we have 25 Saddams."
The top American civilian in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, announced in November that both his Coalition Provisional Authority and the council, which he hand-picked, will cease to exist on July 1. In their place, he said, will be a national assembly of some 270 Iraqis chosen through a caucus-like process in the country's 18 provinces. That body will begin setting up a new Iraqi government that's to remain in place until open elections are possible.
After Bremer made the plan public, many observers took it as a sign that he'd caved to pressure from a Bush administration that was eager to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq before November's elections and a religious edict issued earlier in the year by Shiite Muslim Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. That edict, or fatwa, proclaimed that the framers of the Iraqi constitution should be elected officials.
Bremer's original plan had been to get a new Iraqi constitution written before ending the U.S.-led occupation, but when he revealed his intentions to a November meeting of the governing council, several members came close to walking out, according to one of the members who was there. Shortly thereafter, some council members began talking about staying past July 1 in small, and then larger, meetings.
Asked about the implications of the council staying on, Sheikh Jamal Nasir al Ta'aee, whose tribal group numbers around 100,000 in central Iraq, responded: "If they stay, we will use politics to ask them to leave. Or, we will get our guns and fight them."
Those who favor the idea say they're just trying to ensure a peaceful transition to the new assembly.
"There is a practical reality that there will be some time before the national assembly can (put together) a government," said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for governing council member Chalabi. "A continuity must be there between the governing council and this new period."
Others go further.
"We should not hand all of what we've done to people we don't know, to people who have goals we don't know," said council member Naseer Chaderji.
An American spokesman said that as far as the coalition is concerned, the council will be dissolved on Nov. 15.
Qanbar's face darkened slightly when he heard that.
"The Americans are not part of this discussion; it is a conversation amongst governing council members," he said, sitting at a table in a Baghdad country club, his pinstripe suit neatly pressed and his hair slicked back. Two young men holding AK-47 rifles flanked him.
The future, Qanbar said, belongs to Iraqis and to those willing to lead them.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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