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Iraqi council must overcome disconnect with people it governs

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Mohsen Abdul Hameed learned patience and diligence while dissecting the Quran for his many writings on Islamic thought. He said those virtues came in handy these days as he and other members of Iraq's interim leadership fought for the trust of Iraqis who had little security, sporadic electricity and no elected representatives.

Hameed nodded in agreement Monday at stories of Iraqis who view the Governing Council as little more than a bunch of opportunistic exiles cozying up to U.S. forces.

"These feelings are natural," said Hameed, a university professor from the Iraqi Islamic Party. "We are working under the shadow of occupation."

That shadow extends across Iraq, as residents complain of council meetings that produce no changes in their grueling existence. They say they wanted elections, and were told the country wasn't yet stable enough. They looked for familiar faces on the council, but American administrators appointed 22 men and three women with fragmented followings, many of whom had been living outside Iraq. They hoped for a single president and received a nine-man leadership with monthly rotation.

"What other country has a president that changes every month?" asked Salah Sabah, 35, who comes from a prominent family of Baghdad musicians. "I will trust the council only when the last U.S. soldier leaves Iraq. In fact, I wish the Governing Council would leave Iraq."

The council—a politically and ethnically disparate group—struggles on two fronts. Members are under pressure to impress American officials, who maintain veto power over their decisions, with speedy policy that will bring calm to the war-ravaged country and hasten an independent Iraq. Perhaps the larger task, however, is overcoming a gaping disconnect with the people they govern.

Members said they realized the council was largely invisible to everyday Iraqis. They conduct daily meetings off-limits to the public in an elegant office that's the former rest house of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel. Despite the rosy picture of collegiality painted by Ibrahim al Jaafari, a doctor who is the first of the nine rotating presidents, sources close to the council say internal arguments have delayed the leadership's two most immediate tasks: choosing a Cabinet and assembling a committee to draft a constitution.

"Being the head of the Governing Council was not my objective," al Jaafari said. "I just want to serve my country and my people. We are working together."

Al Jaafari hadn't lived in Iraq since 1980, when he fled Saddam's efforts to stamp out the Shiite Muslim al Dawa Party. He most recently lived in London, where his wife and children remain.

Asked to list the council's accomplishments so far, he described improvements in women's rights and a good working relationship with American-led forces.

Like many other members of the council, his answers to Iraqis' main concerns were vague. Reliable electricity? They're working on it. Security? Top priority. Political independence? Soon.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said last week that Iraqis could expect general elections within a year. That leaves an impossibly small window for conducting a census, registering voters, establishing districts and deciding which parties should be on the ballot, some council members said.

Al Jaafari, who invited Bremer to lunch on the Iraqi's first day in office, said Bremer was supportive of the council's progress and promised to use his veto power only in "crisis situations."

"I know my country is passing through exceptional circumstances," al Jaafari said. "I have to do my best. We have to give evidence that we are with the people."

In a barbershop in Baghdad, at least one Iraqi held out hope for the new leaders. Ayad Hosni, 22, snipped a client's mustache Monday as Arabic pop music thumped in the background. The toppling of Saddam's regime relieved him of mandatory military service and turned his shop into a forum for political talk, something that was forbidden for decades.

Hosni said he believed in the General Council and got into spats with clients who stubbornly refused to give the members a chance. Any government, he argues, is better than Saddam.

"I can put my head on the pillow and sleep deeply," Hosni said. "I can rest now."

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

Iraq

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