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Iraqi governing council gradually gaining credibility

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A stone's throw from the convention center where hunkered down American officials drive home a daily message that postwar Iraq is improving, Governing Council members come and go from a guesthouse used by the former regime and strive to make that message a reality.

It's a challenge. Ordinary Iraqis think the 25-member council dominated by former exiles doesn't represent them. The council got off to a rocky start when its U.S.-picked members couldn't even agree on a council president. Instead, they chose a rotating presidency that would ensure each of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups—Sunni, Shiite, Christian and Kurd —would share the thankless job.

Firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a religious leader with a small but militant following, recently threatened the council's authority by proposing his own shadow government.

And, not least, there have been multiple assassination attempts against council members.

Despite all this, there are signs the council is gaining credibility. As members huddle in endless meetings, they take baby steps toward acquiring the trappings of full political power, such as financing emergency jobs and paying street cleaners.

Gradually they have begun to assert their independence—fighting the U.S.-dominated coalition on key policy issues—and receive worldwide recognition. The Bush administration has agreed to give the council more authority in order to win passage of resolutions at the United Nations. Most recently, the group was given added legitimacy by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's biggest Muslim political grouping, which met in Malaysia.

Earlier this month, council members forcibly expressed repeated opposition to the idea of Turkish troops in Iraq, and they might prevail. The issue ultimately will be decided by the coalition, which is anxious to help the council cast off its image as a puppet.

Members of the council have appointed a diverse group of government ministers and set up a committee to draft a constitution. While there's a big split between members who think the drafters should be elected versus appointed, that's a healthy debate that never would have occurred before the war.

The two most important issues facing the council are security and the constitution, said Sondul Chapouk, a Turkman from Kirkuk who sits on eight committees. "But it needs time. How can you build a house in one day? We need to build a strong base and that can't be done overnight," said Chapouk, a civil engineer and mother of three.

Mudhafir Abdul Majeed Fatohi, 52, an importer of electric appliances and the owner of five electronics shops in Baghdad, understands. "We must give the Governing Council a chance, at least a year. I'm not a political person, I'm a merchant," Fatohi said. "People like me take it step by step."

But many other Iraqis are impatient.

"Unfortunately the council has done nothing for the people," said Dr. Sadoun al Dulame, executive director for the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "Some of them are very smart and speak English very well but that's not enough. They need to share the Iraqi people's headaches."

A poll published by the Center on Thursday found Iraqis broadly distrustful of their political leaders. Asked whether they had a favorable opinion of each member of the Governing Council, only three members rated more than 50 percent. Eighteen members did not get more than 20 percent support in the poll, with many members in the single digits, including the two women members. In last place with 4.1 percent was a human rights lawyer and sheikh from Babel, Ahmad Shya'a al Barak.

Adil Abdul Mahdi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest Shiite political party, is sitting in for council member Abdel-Aziz al Hakim, the brother of the senior Najaf cleric killed in July. Mahdi was at the Turkish Embassy on Oct. 14 when a suicide car bomb blew up in front of the embassy and believes he was the target. Coalition forces are still investigating the blast and have not identified any suspects.

Another council member, Mouwafak al Rabii, a human rights activist and doctor who returned to Iraq from Britain, was in the Baghdad Hotel when a car bomb blew up on Oct. 12. He insisted afterward that the attack left him more determined than scared.

Another council member also is no stranger to death threats. Mohammed Bahr al Uloum, a respected Shiite cleric who lost 22 members of his Najaf-based family during the previous regime, also returned to Iraq from London to help rebuild the country. He stepped down briefly to protest the lack of security provided by the Americans, but he has since rejoined the group. His son is the new oil minister.

"I have received threats from al-Qaida and from other people. All the members are targets. We are sentenced with death, but without that sentence being enforced," he said. "I want to serve my country, and this is my job. I have to go from my house to the GC. If I am afraid, I will just stay in my house and I will be a traitor to my country and to my job."

A quarter of the council members live in the Baghdad Hotel, the rest in their own homes or with their relatives. They have been promised better security from the coalition, but additional cars, communications and bodyguards are tied up in bureaucracy, said council member Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy.

Sumaidy urged critics of the council to remember that it had to start from zero, without a place to meet, without support staff and in need even of being taught what a quorum is.

"The country came out of the war completely shattered. Even ministry buildings were completely destroyed. There was no army, no police, no security forces. You had a complete power vacuum," said Sumaidy, a Shiite writer and designer who lived in the United Kingdom before returning to Iraq after the war.

"We have formed a first cabinet, we have set up committees toward writing a constitution, and neighboring countries and allies recognize us. We had to gain recognition as an Iraqi body with an Iraqi will, independent of the coalition. The Arab League, the United Nations and the Islamic Congress have recognized us. That's quite an achievement."

L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, briefs the council each Wednesday, after sending over an agenda on Mondays. The discussion, closed to the press, is described as lively. Several prominent council members haven't been present recently, which has caused grumbling, but many have been traveling, first to Malaysia for the Islamic Congress and then to Madrid for the donors conference this week.

"We are in constant debate with the coalition on the mechanisms of transferring power, how much and how power is transferred," Sumaidy said. "The problem is the CPA is a monster with many heads. We talk to one head, it's friendly; we talk to another, it's reluctant. We are tackling a lot of problems and we are tackling them all at once, compounded by huge law and order problems, trying to get government to function and get services running. It's not a simple task, and we are doing our best."


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