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New U.S.-backed Iraqi leadership meets for first time, but Iraqis skeptical

BAGHDAD—The first post-war governing council of Iraqis held its inaugural meeting Sunday and promptly abolished six national holidays celebrating Saddam Hussein's era and announced a new one marking Saddam's downfall.

The U.S.-backed council of 25 Iraqi men and women is drawn from all ethnic groups in Iraq but is dominated by Shi'ia Muslims, whom Saddam tortured and killed, and who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.

Hailed by supporters as the seed of democracy, the council's great test is winning respect from ordinary Iraqis as a legitimate and representative institution.

So far skepticism abounds.

"I do not believe that they will represent the Iraqi people," said Maha Ahmed, a pharmacist. "They were selected by the Americans, not by the people."

The council's debut was open only to press, coalition officials and friends and family. The top American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, has veto power over the group. And, as ordinary Iraqis pointed out, the 25 members were not elected by the people, but instead were appointed by Bremer and other officials in the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Even so, hope was palpable inside the convention center where the council met.

It's formation was "an expression of the Iraqi national will," said Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, one of the 25 members and a Shi'ia cleric. He said Saddam has been relegated to "the trash heap of history."

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, hailed the group as a landmark in Iraq's rebirth. "There are defining moments in history," de Mello said, "and for Iraq, today is definitely one of those."

Council member Nasrer al Chaderjee, head of the National Democratic Party, emphasized the need to win public support:

"We believe, strongly believe, that Mr. Bremer cannot do anything without the support of the Iraqi people."

But outside, enthusiasm was hard to find. Interviews with people across Baghdad suggest that the council has a long way to go to win popular support.

"The Americans chose those people, we haven't heard that the Iraqis selected any of them," said Tamar Sarkies, a saleswoman in a clothing store. "The Americans impose them on us."

"From the beginning, they put the right of veto in Bremer's hand, so what if they make a decision against the American's benefit, of course Bremer will blow it up. This is not freedom," said Ali Abdul Amir, an orthopedic specialist.

Still, as politicians, professors and taxi cab drivers argue about the governing body's role, most everyone seems to agree that the nation's future could depend in large part on its success or failure. If Iraqis think the council is only a puppet organization and that the United States will not return rule over the country to Iraqis, then violence could worsen, and at least 32 coalition soldiers already have been killed since May 1, when major combat operations ended.

For now, the council's executive powers are limited. It can appoint heads of national ministries. At some point in the future, it will organize a national constitutional assembly. It is also charged with selecting foreign diplomats and reviewing the 2004 budget. But the group has yet to organize any internal voting structure or hierarchy.

Bremer did not speak at the council's meeting, but at a recent briefing he made clear where ultimate power lies.

"At the bottom of course, it is the case that the (Coalition) authority still has the ultimate authority here until we get a sovereign Iraqi government in place," he said.

In a series of interviews with seven of the main political parties last week, many officials said the clock is ticking to pacify the general populace.

Imad al Shibib, spokesman for the Iraqi National Accord, which has a seat on the council, said "the existing situation, it's no secret, does not satisfy anybody. The security, the electricity, also the economic situation; the people are suffering."

The average Iraqi, he said, is angry. "Of course he is not in a good mood, what do you expect? If you leave this situation for another six months, they will explode."

Coalition officials point to the council's diversity as its salvation. The council includes not only Shi'ias and Sunni Muslims, but several Kurdish leaders from the north, three women and a communist.

It also includes Ahmed Chalabi, the influential longtime-exile leader who heads the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi enjoys strong support from the Pentagon's civilian leadership.

With such a wide selection of Iraqis in the forefront, Bremer has said, citizens will understand that their country is transitioning back to Iraqi rule.

Many Iraqis fear the council members' varied backgrounds instead will lead to bickering and the body's eventual dissolution.

"For me, frankly, I don't want a government that represents groups, groups that will lead to a divided Iraq," said Mahdya Alobidy, a political science professor at Baghdad University who, specializes in political party ideology. "I don't like it. Bremer makes decisions, but he does not have the right to, he is a part of an occupying force I don't believe that anything will come of it."

With spirits high after an afternoon press conference, Ghazi Al-Yawar, a civil engineer who's serving on the council, dismissed such worries as over-reaction. "A parliament without arguments is not a parliament," he said. "It is a fruit cake."

It's not yet clear who will lead the council. It includes representatives from the seven political parties that Bremer relied on heavily. Several people involved in negotiations about the council's formation said last week that Bremer initially proposed something more akin to an advisory body, but began conceding more power when it became clear that the parties would not participate otherwise.

"We have some reservations, some very strong reservations, about the political council," said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress. Without real decision-making power, Qanbar said, "it wouldn't have been legitimate."

Hamid Abdel Jader, a U.N. spokesman, said that de Mello has counseled Bremer in recent weeks. "His advice has largely been to give the Iraqis more power," Jader said, "to make it look more like a governing council with more executive power and a budget rather than just an advisory board."

The council wasted little time in distancing itself from Saddam's regime. It named April 9, the day Baghdad fell and Saddam disappeared, a new national holiday, and also abolished six Ba'ath Party holidays. The first of those comes Monday, marking the July 14, 1958, coup against a British-supported king. The next is Wednesday, the anniversary of Saddam's ascent to the presidency, followed by Thursday's celebration of the Ba'ath Party's revolution.

Anticipating possible uprisings by Ba'athist loyalists on those dates, the U.S. Army this weekend began the fourth in a recent string of large-scale raids in an area known as the Sunni Triangle. The wide swath of land is home to many Sunni Muslims—Saddam's religious preference—and Tikrit, his hometown.

Despite the three previous similar operations, attacks on U.S. troops escalated during the past month.

Sherwan Dizayee, spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party_ which also has a seat on the council, said the attacks will become a thing of the past when "there is a government, when there is peace, jobs and a brighter future. It will not be overnight, obviously."


(Knight Ridder correspondents Dana Hull and Omar Nassim contributed to this report.)


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