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Iraqis pushing to quickly establish interim government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Two months after U.S. forces took over Baghdad, many people in the Iraqi capital say they're surprised and upset that the Americans still haven't established an interim government.

The first phase of an interim government isn't scheduled until mid-July, when L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. official in charge of reconstruction, plans to appoint 25 to 30 Iraqis to a political council. Representatives from Iraq's former opposition parties and others are already jockeying for seats, even though it's not clear how much real decision-making power the council will have.

Many people in Baghdad have heard of the "Group of Seven" Iraqi political parties who regularly meet among themselves and with American and British officials. But they are widely seen as being run by exiles who lived in London or elsewhere while Iraqis who stayed in the country suffered under Saddam Hussein and crushing economic sanctions.

After decades of living under a regime that allowed no political opposition, Iraqis can't quickly name any homegrown political leader. But they want to take the first steps toward a government of their own, and they can't understand why it's taking the American-led reconstruction team so long to establish an interim government with limited authority.

"I am astonished by the delay. It has been two months and still there is no interim government," said Yousef Muhsen, the owner of a small barbershop. His shop is just around the corner from an office of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was based in Iran and supported by the Iranian government before Saddam fell. Muhsen knows very little about the group, which is one of the "Group of Seven."

"Our first problem is that we don't know about these parties because they all came from outside Iraq," he said. "If they are going to put the seven parties in the new government, we want more information."

"It has been two months, and we only have the promises of the Americans," said Sabah al Oblady, the owner of a music shop. "There is no action. When you have parties fighting to get seats on a political council, they are only fighting for themselves, not for the good of the Iraqi people. I think that the delay is on purpose. The Americans don't want us to have a government, because if we have one they will have to leave our country."

Many Iraqis are deeply engaged in politics and love to talk about it. When a reporter interviews one person about his or her views on the street, a crowd quickly gathers and everyone chimes in with strong opinions.

But others say they can't worry about the shape or role of an interim government when they have more pressing needs in their lives.

"I take my two children to school every day and wait for them to take them home because I am still afraid for their safety," Hala Najeeb said as she waited for a bus. "I was told that I have to move out of the apartment where we have been living. But we don't have a government. If I want to complain, where do I go? Who do I talk to?"

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-led staff facing the enormous task of rebuilding Iraq, operates out of one of Hussein's opulent palaces. A large chow hall serves hot coffee and scrambled eggs and potatoes for breakfast. Military maps of Baghdad and other regions of Iraq line the halls, and tables full of laptops with Internet access serve as a news media and information center. American and British officials rush from meeting to meeting.

At the palace gates, scores of Iraqis line up every morning to explain their personal problems and ask for help.

"Some people say that their neighbors are members of the Baath Party and they want to turn them in. Others need jobs or are looking for missing relatives. One lady said that a dog bit her child," said a U.S. soldier who didn't want to be named. The soldier talked to the long line of people one by one with the help of a translator, then did her best to direct them to various aid and relief organizations.

In recent weeks, American officials have widened the circle of people they consult with beyond the seven political parties. On Friday, Bremer met with representatives of the seven political parties and 10 outsiders, including three women, a Christian and a tribal leader.

"We wanted to broaden out the range of opinions rather than just increase the percentage from the existing political parties," said a State Department official involved in the process in Baghdad, who spoke at a background briefing on the condition of anonymity. "We want to bring in more people who have been in Iraq in recent years, and we want to bring together people from all walks of life. People should be able to see themselves on the political council."

At the al Shah Bender cafe, ceiling fans whirred while men drank endless cups of tea. The cafe has been a gathering spot for artists, writers and leftists since it opened in 1917.

Mubarak Mohammed, a playwright, said Iraq should have a national assembly of several hundred Iraqi officials who would select an interim government. That plan had been floated, but Bremer rejected it.

"Where is the new government? Where is the national assembly?" Mohammed said. "We only have one government now, and that is the occupation. When the U.S. entered Afghanistan, they got a new government quickly with Hamid Karzai. Why didn't they treat us the same way?"


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.